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!
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!
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.
Happy Book Birthday to Cindy L Rodriguez’s Three Pockets Full: A story of love, family and tradition!
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!
ANNA ORENSTEIN-CARDONA: THE TREE OF HOPE
by Mariana Ríos Ramírez
MR: It’s my pleasure to welcome Anna Orenstein-Cardona to our Las Musas Blog to celebrate the book birthday of The Tree of Hope, a picture book written by Anna and illustrated by Juan Manuel Moreno. Congratulations!
ANNA ORENSTEIN-CARDONA: First a little bit about the book:
The jagüey blanco, also known as a banyan tree, of the San Juan Gate is one of the most beloved trees in the city of Old San Juan, located on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Due to its sheer size, magnificence, and location.
For over a century, it stood proudly next to the tall red gateway known as the San Juan Gate, or the Puerta de San Juan.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made its devastating landfall in Puerto Rico. It was the worst natural disaster on record to hit the island, causing widespread flooding and a complete collapse of the island’s electrical grid and water systems. People were sadly left without running water and in complete darkness for months. It also destroyed much of the island’s nature, including the magnificent jagüey blanco, which was uprooted and fell into the sea.
THE TREE OF HOPE is inspired by the tree’s miraculous rescue and regrowth; a reminder of the power of community and the importance of never giving up.
MR: Anna, I’m so excited to talk to you about your debut picture book. It must be a dream come true! To get this conversation started, can you share about you and your journey as a children’s book writer?
ANNA ORENSTEIN-CARDONA: Since childhood, I loved reading books. Some of my happiest moments were spent at public libraries with my parents.
As they did research for their cases (both were lawyers, as well as law professors at different points in time), I would pull out a pile of books and read them from cover to cover.
Not only did I enjoy getting lost in different worlds, but I loved making them up as well! I remember being Glitter Girl, the powerful superhero that combatted evil with glitter, as well as numerous other characters from my imagination.
It was my wonderful grandfather, Barnet, who would always remind me to write down my stories. You see, he believed in my writing, before I even did.
Although writing was a huge passion, I also had other interests, such as science and math (I call myself a multi-passionate learner). It was that love of science and math that took me to study Brain & Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Once there, I realized that it was okay to try out different things. That’s why, after graduation, I headed over to New York to work in the world of finance (numbers were a big part of it too).
Fast forward a few years later, I found myself working in London. As I rode the tube home from work one evening, I saw an advertisement in the Evening Standard. It was for a creative writing course by Faber Academy.
It said, “Bad writing can always be improved, but a blank page will always be a blank page.” There was something about those words that shook me to the core.
That’s what prompted me in 2012 to sign up to their six-month writing course, Writing a Novel. Luckily, it took place in the evenings and Saturdays, so I was able to balance it with work.
After that course finalized, I signed up for another one, Writing for Children, with award-winning British children’s author Anthony McGowan. It opened a whole new world of possibility, and I felt my calling for writing children’s books. After all, if we can inspire children with our stories, we can inspire the future generations of adults. How beautiful!
So, I dived in and learned as much about the industry as possible. I read incessantly, wrote in the evenings and on the weekends, attended SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conferences in the UK and USA, and absorbed everything I could about the children’s publishing world.
MR: Anna that is so inspiring! I love that you were able to pursue your writing dream even if you went down different paths first. I’m glad that you hold on to it and made it happen when the time was right. Can you tell us about your querying experience?
ANNA ORENSTEIN-CARDONA: I tried querying a few agents with some other manuscripts but didn’t have success.
Then in 2020, my world fell apart with the loss of my beloved mother. The period after her passing was a time of deep mourning and reflection. A time of renewed appreciation. My soul was telling me that it was time to give it another go.
That’s why in the fall of that year, when I heard about #LatinxPitch – a kidlit pitching event for creators of children’s literature who belong to the Latinx Community – I penciled in the date and went off to prepare my Twitter pitches. As they say, the rest is history.
My picture book pitch for The Tree Of Hope received a few likes from various editors and agents, but it was the fabulous Naomi Krueger (acquisitions editor at Beaming Books) who really stood out. She gave me some great feedback and editorial suggestions. We signed the publishing deal in the summer of 2021!
MR: I’m so sorry about your mom, Anna. I admire that you were able to overcome that difficult experience being able to fuel your writing purpose, which ultimately lead to your success on landing a book deal. On a side note, I want to share that LatinxPitch is also part of my journey, since it was also the event that opened the door for me to meet my editor for Santiago’s Dinosaurios, so I understand how special that moment was for you. Can you tell us what happened afterwards?
ANNA ORENSTEIN-CARDONA: Although, I have been writing for a long time, the truth is that I feel I am just beginning my journey as an Author. When you finally get a publishing deal, it all becomes suddenly so very real and frankly even a bit scary! It’s like, “Oh, I’m really a writer!” and all sorts of feelings come up.
Creating a book is beautiful, but then you start to wonder if people will support your work and if it will have the impact, you really desire. So, I’m taking it day by day, learning and growing, and hoping that my stories will bring joy!
Regarding agents, I don’t have one yet, as I signed a deal directly with my publisher. However, it’s most definitely something that I hope to accomplish in the next year, as I’d love to have someone to help champion my work. *P.S. If any agent is reading this, please feel free to say HOLA. Hehehe…
Finally, no author can do this journey alone for it can be long and lonely. Therefore, I want to thank my family and friends that have supported me thus far. They believed in my dream, provided feedback, and lots of encouragement!
I also want to thank 4 special organizations that support creatives in a way that is very special. Firstly, a mega shoutout to LatinxPitch. If it weren’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be here. GRACIAS.
Las Musas, thank you for creating such a wonderful container of support for Latinx creators. I am blessed to be part of your community.
And a big thanks to SCBWI (Society of Children Book Writers & Illustrators) and SOA (Society of Authors). Not only have I been able to meet the most incredible group of friends through these organizations, but I have learned so much about craft. Thank you for championing writers & illustrators!
MR: I agree, the journey to publication is not easy; so it’s a blessing to have special people, groups and organizations cheering and providing support along the away. Now, let’s talk about your debut, The Tree of Hope. I had the chance of reading an advance reader copy of your book, and I loved it. It’s a very inspiring, heartwarming, and touching story. I especially liked that it’s based on true events and how it’s about overcoming obstacles, moving forward, and never giving up. I believe those are great lessons for children to read about nowadays. In your author’s note you mention that as a girl you used to spend time with this tree. Can you talk about what inspired you to write this story?
ANNA ORENSTEIN-CARDONA: As a child, one of my greatest joys was visiting Old San Juan and sitting under the jagüey blanco with a piragua (snow cone) in hand. When I learned about the tree’s fall after Hurricane Maria, I felt like I had lost a childhood friend.
The history of its recovery is nothing short of a miracle and I knew that this beautiful and inspiring story had to be shared with the world. I wrote the book quite quickly in the Fall of 2017. It was a love letter to my country, but I didn’t even think of querying it because it was just too much of an emotional time. So, it stayed in a drawer for some time. Eventually, I edited it a few times and had wonderful mentorship. A big shout-out of gratitude to fellow friend & superb author, Chitra Soundar, who provided phenomenal feedback on the book. I even changed the main protagonist from the tree to a little girl, and then back to the tree (upon Naomi’s suggestion which I’m so happy about).
MR: The story of the tree’s recovery is indeed a miracle. I was blown away by how the community came together to rescue their beloved tree. Such a powerful story! I’m glad that it’s doing great and back where it belongs. Anna, can you tell us how you came up with the title of the book?
Originally, I had titled the book The Caribbean Tree, but ended up with The Tree Of Hope as it truly represented the key takeaway of the book, which is no matter what obstacles we face in life, we must always have HOPE.
MR: I love that! The final title is really fitting to the story. It was a good decision to change it since hope truly represents the main theme of the book. Do you have a favorite scene?
My favorite scene is when the little girl is touching the roots of the Jagüey Blanco, as it drifted between worlds. I think it has so much power in it. To me, it not only reminds me of the dark time my country went through after Hurricane Maria (represented by the fall of the tree), but it also represents the time I spent by my mother’s bedside, days before her passing, as she too drifted between worlds.
Hold on, reaching for the tissues…
See that’s the beauty of books. We can find so much symbolism and emotions in them!
MR: You are right, as writers we really do put a lot of our hearts and emotions into our stories. I believe that’s what make them special, unique and what allow readers to connect with them. How was it like to work with your editor?
I am SO grateful to my editor, Naomi Krueger, for allowing me the opportunity to R&R (Revise and Resubmit) after she provided such brilliant and insightful comments to my MS submission. Also, for championing this story from the beginning!
I enjoyed every bit of working with her on ensuring that my manuscript could be the best possible. I learned so much through the process, especially how to tell a story with fewer words. This is particularly important with picture books! It was truly a beautiful collaboration.
MR: Anna, believe it or not I also experienced a Revise and Resubmit for my debut book. Another coincidence! This shows how important it is for authors to go for it when they get the chance and if they consider the suggestions resonate with their own vision for the book. Regarding the beautiful illustrations, can you share how were you involved in the process?
Since The Tree Of Hope is inspired by a true story, I was able to send my editor (who then sent to the illustrator) some images of the real-life tree, it’s fall, and rescue. I also sent videos of the regrowth that the tree has gone through since it’s fall. However, I didn’t see any of the illustrations until the first roughs were sent through and they blew me away. They were so spot on, it was magical!
I was able to provide some feedback, including adding a few elements like cats, which I adore and in real-life roam the Old City, where the Banyan Tree is based, as well as butterflies in honor of my mother. Juan Manuel also added a little hidden message in one of the illustrations that is a nod to a Puerto Rican sports legend that I always admired. ¡Gracias Juan Manuel!
MR: The process with the illustrations for my book was very similar, I wasn’t able to contact the illustrator directly, but I came to understand why this happens. The purpose is to give the artists the freedom they need to create so they can bring their own layers to the story. I think that makes our books even more special and magical. So, how was it for you when you got to see the final illustrations of the book?
Oh my goodness, I cried like a baby! Haha. Seriously. Juan Manuel Moreno is SUCH a talented illustrator. It was as if he had seen the tree and surroundings in person. All the illustrations are AMAZING, but my favorite is the scene I mentioned previously regarding the little girl touching the roots of the fallen tree. The colors are so evocative of the feelings that arise when reading that scene, it’s pure poetry and art.
MR: How lucky you felt that way. Regarding marketing and publicity, can you talk about what you’ve done since you finished working on the edits of the book and how you’re getting ready for the release date?
Great question! Well, it’s been a super busy time as an author also needs to be an entrepreneur. This requires setting up some tech, like a website and social media accounts. I’ve also been working on building an email list, so that I can email people about my journey, the book, events, reviews, etc.
Finally, I’ve also been busy working on new manuscripts, attending writing events and retreats, and supporting my fellow author friends on their journeys.
MR: You’re so right about authors needing to be entrepreneurs. Promoting our books is a job that never ends. What do you hope children will be able to take away from your book?
The key take away is a reminder that we and nature are so very much related. We both face challenges and obstacles. However, if we move forward with determination and hope, everything is possible, even in the face of adversity!
MR: That’s such a meaningful message! I’m sure children and parents will find it very heartwarming and inspiring. Can you share what comes next for Anna Orenstein-Cardona?
I am working on a few exciting projects, including a picture book that deals with the topic of grief in an uplifting manner and writing a proposal for a children’s book that teaches about money in a fun way. As a financial educator, I believe that we must teach children about money early on. Finally, I hope to query my Middle Grade manuscript which is about a secret society of superhero felines!
MR: That’s all very exciting! I think books about grief are really needed as many kids go through hard times, and by reading books they can relate to, they can find a source of comfort. Also, how special that you’ll get to share your experience in finance with children. I can’t wait to know more! I wish you the best with these projects and with your Middle Grade, it sounds amazing, and I can tell you really love cats. Any final comment or suggestion you’d like to share with fellow writers looking to be published?
Yes! The journey is long and can be extremely frustrating, but it’s totally worth it. Don’t give up.
Write because the thought of not writing is too painful to endure. Read voraciously, then read some more.
Work on your craft and surround yourself by like-minded writers that believe in you. Listen to feedback and don’t take critiques personally. It is by challenging ourselves that we grow. Seek help from organizations that support writers, such as the ones I previously mentioned. And as my beloved mother always said, “echa pa’ lante”, which means GO FOR IT!
MR: Anna, thanks for sharing your journey to publication. I really enjoyed getting to know more about you, your book and coming projects. I wish you all the best!
Purchase TREE OF HOPE Today!
Anna Orenstein-Cardona was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is an alum of Faber Academy (Writing a Novel and Writing for Children). She is active in the Society of Children Book Writer’s and Illustrators (SCBWI).
Anna is an NFEC-certified financial educator (CFEI) and coach with over 22 years of experience working in global financial markets. In 2020, she founded Wear Your Money Crown® to help close the gap in financial literacy.
Her debut picture book, The Tree Of Hope, is out on the 23rd of August 2022 with Beaming Books.
Currently, Anna is working on developing various projects, including more children books. She lives in London with her two very special furbabies and her Southern Gentleman husband, although spends as much time as she can in Puerto Rico. Where she regularly gets involved in rescuing abandoned animals and supporting local charities.
You can follow her on IG @wearyourmoneycrown, Twitter @BoricuaAnna, or learn more at http://www.annaorensteincardona.com/
Today, we’re celebrating the release of Pura Belpré Award-winning author Guadalupe García McCall’s latest young adult novel, Echoes of Grace (Tu Books). This powerful and atmospheric story explores sisterhood, family secrets, intergenerational trauma, life, and love in a modern Gothic setting with a magical realist twist.
In Eagle Pass, Texas, Grace struggles to understand the echoes she inherited from her mother—visions which often distort her reality. One morning, as her sister, Mercy, rushes off to work, a disturbing echo takes hold of Grace, and within moments, tragedy strikes.
Attending community college for the first time, talking to the boy next door, and working toward her goals all help Grace recover, but her estrangement from Mercy takes a deep toll. And as Grace’s echoes bring ghosts and premonitions, they also bring memories of when Grace fled to Mexico to the house of her maternal grandmother—a woman who Grace had been told died long ago. Will piecing together the truth heal Grace and her sister, or will the echoes destroy everything that she holds dear?
Today, Jennifer Torres talks with García McCall about memory, sisterhood, and the power of Gothic and Magical Realist traditions to shed new light on injustice.
Jennifer Torres: Guadalupe, what a privilege it was to read your gorgeous and haunting Echoes of Grace. I’d love to start with the setting. Much of this book takes place in Eagle Pass, Texas, and just over the border in Piedras Negras, in the Mexican state of Coahuila. You give both such a powerful presence. This is a place you’re from and a place you’ve set other work. Can you share why you returned to it in Echoes of Grace?
Guadalupe García McCall: The borderlands between the US and Mexico are rich with a warm, generous people and culture. It is my emotional home, the place I always go back to when I am wounded, when I am torn. And that’s what this story did, it cut me open and exposed pain that I didn’t even know I was still carrying around. It took me back to my young womanhood, to the time when I was a young mother trying to navigate school and family duties in the midst of great financial hardship. While I was writing this, I remembered my sisters bore the same burden. We were two wounded but determined young women working past pain and trauma while we made our way in a world that offered no help, no hope, for the impoverished. I could have set this book in Somerset, Texas, where a traumatizing event, the death of a child who was run over by his young mother when he left his even younger aunt’s side on their porch, took place. The news swept through our community and gave us all much to think about. I could have set it in Alpine, Texas, where my sister and I attended school as young mothers trying to make something of ourselves even as we cared for each other’s children. I could have actually set it anywhere else in the world where young destitute women are trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. But the truth is, I needed to go home for this one. I needed to feel safe, even as I explored how unsafe women in our community (and our world) still are.
JT: How did you come up with the echoes that main character Grace—as well as her mother before her—experiences? As you were imagining this inheritance, did you see it more as gift or curse (or something else?)
GGM: Grace’s story came to me in bits and pieces—snippets of convoluted conversations, bizarre images, raw poems, and strange scenes. At the time, I thought of them only as visions but, as the story grew, I saw that they were like memories—things she could see, hear, feel, even taste and smell—and that was compelling to me. So, I would say the echoes that the main character has are what some scientists call “genetic memory,” something that elucidates the generational trauma experienced by the women in this family. I would say the echoes are both a curse and a gift because they hinder but also help Grace make sense of the world in a way most of us can’t. We don’t know what silences, what secrets, what struggles, what sins our mothers and grandmothers kept from us, but we have a good sense of it. We feel their pains, their sorrows, their burdens deep down in our bones. Grace just happens to have the ability to recall these things. Genetic memory, echo, gift, or curse—generational trauma doesn’t just exist in Grace’s life. Generational trauma caused by neglect, abuse, and crimes against women is all around us, embedded in the social and political structures of our world. And this story is asking us to take action and do something about it.
JT: Echoes of Grace moves back and forth through time and across the border. How did you decide on the timelines the narrative would span and how you would present them to the reader?
GGM: Echoes of Grace was my thesis novel at the University of Texas at El Paso. Because the novel was coming to me in snippets, I allowed myself to play with time and narrative space in what Mario Vargas Llosa calls Spatial and Temporal Shifts. So, the original manuscript was not structured at all because Grace’s memories, flashbacks, and visions or echoes, were woven into the narrative in magical, ephemeral ways. Because of these temporal shifts the novel felt very experimental and not linear at all. It wasn’t until Stacy Whitman at Tu Books got a hold of the manuscript and started asking questions about the timeline that I realized Grace was narrating many different time periods in many different spaces, within an “understood” three-year span. So that’s when we decided to use a very structured dual timeline where the events from the past echo the events in Grace’s present, to give the memories, flashbacks, and visions/echoes some semblance of order. But there’s a twist to this—Grace’s story is more complicated than that. There are mysteries to be solved: Why can’t Grace remember where she was three years ago? Who killed her mother? Why are the echoes getting stronger and more intrusive? And why are they suddenly bringing literal ghosts into her life? I don’t want to give anything away here, but you need to read the book to see how the timeline works to put the puzzle pieces together to help Grace solve the mysteries in her life.
JT: I love a sister story, and Grace and Mercy’s will stay with me for a very long time. Would you share a bit about how you evoked the love and connection between them, even in their periods of silence and separation?
GGM: I grew up with 5 sisters and that was both absurdly chaotic and insanely beautiful. We bickered, mocked, defended, and loved each other every single moment of the day. We fought over everything from books to bobby pins to boys. We shared clothes but not mascara because that gives you pink eye—and that’s gross! But no matter how mad we might be at each other when we were fighting amongst ourselves, we always stuck together afterwards. And when we lost our mother to cancer, well, our connection was cemented. Nothing could tear us apart after she was gone. We were each other’s lifelines, though we didn’t always see eye to eye. Interestingly enough, because I was the oldest of 8, I was forced into a parental role at the age of 14. In that role, I learned to suppress my hormones and didn’t partake in the boy-craze that seemed to affect everyone around me. Honestly, during my teen years, I couldn’t understand why my sisters were soooo in love with every boy they met. So, we had tension around that. Lots of tension. In this novel, I wanted to portray all these elements: the connection, the love, the complicated relationships sisters have with each other. Mercy is a combination of three of my sisters, wild, abandoned, and carefree, while Grace is a gross exaggeration of myself, prudish, judgmental, and introverted, because I wanted to show how even though sisters might be very different and have opposing worldviews, they can still share a deep bond. Sisters can love each other unconditionally, no matter the circumstances. Especially in the difficult moments, sisters can help each other grow as they move about in this complicated, oftentimes unfair world.
GGM: I think to answer this question without giving too much away, I have to say that gothic elements and magical realism play very important roles in the novel in that they illustrate the real-world problems we have in our society. If you look at each ghost, you can see how they represent injustices that have been plaguing women for centuries. The gothic elements, the abandoned house in Mexico, the ghosts she encounters, the dark thing that chases her, even the echoes are all there to help Grace solve the mystery and lift the veil off old family secrets. At the same time, the ghosts and specters shed light on how these secrets have created haunting, almost crippling, generational trauma for the women in this family (as toxic masculinity has done in our world!). The ghosts show us what we become when we let fear control us. Because when we are silent in the face of injustices such as neglect, abuse, and crimes against women, we are siding with the oppressor, standing with the abuser, and giving him power over our lives.
JT: There are images of moths and caterpillars throughout this book, from the fuzzy black leopard moth caterpillars at the beginning to the closing image of the International Bridge, beautifully described as “a gray petrified caterpillar” that awakens against the skyline. What do these insects evoke for Grace? How about for you?
GGM: I have always loved nature. From things that grow out of the ground to things that take to the sky—Spanish moss, grass, wildflowers, roses, orchids, caterpillars, butterflies, birds—I love all manner of living creatures. The image of that fuzzy black caterpillar on the porch, trying desperately to get back to its natural habitat, the ancient, motheaten mulberry tree in the front yard in chapter 1 was the very first thing Grace showed me when I started writing this novel. It was only an image, but I researched it and found out that fuzzy black caterpillar was going to someday become a Giant Leopard Moth. I was haunted by the beauty and horror of an especially disturbing close-up of the Leopard Moth online. In the image, the Leopard Moth is facing the camera, her black spotted wings are half splayed behind her, and her black eyes glisten as she stares into the lens. It’s like she’s looking right at us, and I thought, There is an intelligence there we cannot yet comprehend. We are not evolved enough to know what it knows, what it takes to live and breathe in that space.
For Grace, these living creatures illustrate the otherworldly. She sits with the knowledge that she knows nothing and listens. It is in that listening, that experiencing, that the natural world informs her, guides her, maybe even sustains her. When she showed me the image of the International Bridge and likened it to a gray petrified caterpillar, I saw that Grace sees the tenuous relationship between the old-world values to the new worldview we are still creating for ourselves. All of it is connective tissue. The old and the new, the manufactured and the natural, the worldly and the ethereal; it’s all part of the whole, the here and now. Even the things we think are dead and buried are never really gone, like our loved ones. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s all accessible to us. That’s what I learned from writing with Grace, and it’s made me a better person.
JT: In addition to Echoes of Grace, you had another book release this year, the twisty middle grade novel The Keeper, published by Harper Collins in February. What’s coming up next for you?
GGM: I’m very excited for the next two years because I am in the process of revising two novels I co-wrote with renowned historian, author, and professor, David Bowles. The Secret of the Moon Conch (2023, Bloomsbury) features Citlali, a young immigrant woman fleeing the gangs in Veracruz and crossing the US/Mexico border to find her father. Before she leaves home, Citlali finds a magical conch shell on the beach. The conch allows her to communicate with Calizto, a young Nahua warrior fighting off Spanish invaders and attempting to save himself and his friend during the Fall of Tenochtitlan. Though the two teens are separated by 500 years, with the magic conch, they help each other survive even as they fall in love.
The second book, tentatively titled, Hearts of Fire and Snow (2024, Bloomsbury), is a YA paranormal romance featuring wealthy Mexican American families in Reno, Nevada, whose lives are entwined financially and supernaturally. It’s Twilight meets the K-drama Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, but rooted in Mesoamerican myth. The novel features Gregorio Chan, the handsome, brilliant, and mysterious scion of Mexico's richest family and the beautiful, smart, but aloof Blanca Montes, heir to Nevada's biggest real estate empire. But Greg and Blanca are bound by something stronger than physical attraction. In reality, Greg is Commander Popoka, whose heart is bound in cyclical immortality as a mountain god to the volcano Popocatepetl. And Blanca is the reincarnation of his beloved, Princess Istak, who is herself tied to the cold and dormant volcano Iztaccihuatl. She is the love for whom he has been searching for more than a thousand years. The question is, can hearts of fire and snow ever beat as one? Or do they rip the world apart the closer they come to each other? All that is already in the works, on the editor’s desk, moving forward. But I’m still in the literary kitchen, cooking up fresh dishes: new novels, shorts stories, and poems for my readers. I am blessed and full of joy!
Purchase Echoes of Grace today!
Guadalupe García McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low Books), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpré Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist, received the Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Literacy Promising Poet Award, the Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011, among many other accolades. Her second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction award, was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her third novel, Shame the Stars (Tu Books, 2016), was on the Kirkus Best Books 2016 list and was also selected as Texas’ Great Read in 2016. Her fourth novel, All the Stars Denied (Tu Books, 2018), received a starred review from School Library Journal and was included in “2018 Best Multicultural Children’s Books” by the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature (CSMCL). Her poems for children have appeared in The Poetry Friday Anthology, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Ms. García McCall was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.
Jennifer Torres is the author of Stef Soto, Taco Queen, Lola Out Loud, the Catalina Incognito series, The Do-Over and many other books for young readers. She writes stories about home, friendship, and unexpected courage inspired by her Mexican-American heritage. Jennifer started her career as a newspaper reporter, and even though she writes fiction now, she hopes her stories still have some truth in them. She holds a doctorate in education and lives with her family in Southern California. Find her online at www.jenntorres.com
Today on the blog, we're celebrating Adriana Hernández Bergstrom's Abuelita and I Make Flan. Scroll on to read her interview with Musa Terry Catasus Jennings. First -- a little bit more about this special picture book:
Anita loves to bake with her abuela, especially when they are using her grandmother’s special recipes for Cuban desserts like flan!
Anita is making flan for Abuelo’s birthday, but when she accidentally breaks Abuelita’s treasured flan serving plate from Cuba, she struggles with what to do. Anita knows it’s right to tell the truth, but what if Abuelita gets upset? Worried that she has already ruined the day, Anita tries to be the best helper. After cooking the flan, they need a serving dish! Anita comes up with a wonderful solution.
Complete with a glossary of Spanish terms and a traditional recipe for flan, Abuelita and I Make Flan is a delicious celebration of food, culture, and family.
TERRY CATASÚS JENNINGS: Adriana, I am so happy to be your blog partner for your debut, Abuelita and I Make Flan. It’s a heart-felt story which reminded me so much of my own childhood. Thank you for writing this wonderful story. Is this a story that happened in your childhood? What do you want to tell us about it?
ADRIANA HERNÁNDEZ BERGSTROM: Hi Terry! The story is a mixture of real and imagined events. I really did break a wedding dish, but it belonged to my mother, not my abuelita. I really did (and still do!) make a LOT of flan, but it was with my great-aunt, Marta, and sometimes with my aunts or my mom. In real life, I did more crafts like sewing, crochet, and cake decorating with my grandma. I chose flan because it’s delicious and it reminds me of our big family get-togethers which I miss very much.
TERRY: You know, I was like you as well in some respects. I learned my cooking from my aunt Bertica. And I do believe that flan is the quintessential Cuban food. It holds so many memories. Why don’t you tell us about your journey to Abuelita and I Make Flan? You have been illustrating for a long time. Give us an idea of your path to publication and to this particular book.
ADRIANA: It was a long and winding road! I had a lot of familial expectations and pressure that made it seem like an impossible dream to be an author or illustrator as a career. After high school, my idea was to study illustration and be a children’s book illustrator, but nothing went according to plan. The first semester at the University of Miami, the U shuttered the illustration department and converted into ‘Multimedia’. I was on a full scholarship, so I decided to take advantage of my time there and learned printmaking and theatre production. That choice led to a bunch of other life ramifications…I ended up teaching, studying industrial design, working as a freelance graphic designer, living in Germany… until I finally came back to that dream around 2015.
TERRY:, Looking back on my own life, I know that my parents would have wanted me to have a real job, something that could put food on the table regularly. Being an author or an illustrator would have scared them to death. But let’s talk about food. I know through our conversations in Las Musas that Cuban food is very important to both of us. Is this an homage to Cuban food? Is it an homage to your grandmother?
ADRIANA: Yes and yes. I was inspired to capture a moment in time where it felt like everything was going wrong as a kid, but still able to find safety and love from my grandparents who accepted me as an imperfect child deserving of love. So in essence, yes, it’s an homage to my grandmother, my family, and the food that made us feel like we belonged.
TERRY: And that is what gives this book it’s wonderful heart. That lovely idea of “being accepted as an imperfect child deserving of love.” When did you get the idea of the plate? Without the plate, the story is a beautifully sweet story of love and grandparent/grandchild relationship. I would definitely buy and publish that story, if it was up to me, but maybe my agent would say, you don’t have an arc. The plate gives you an arc. It provides the tension in the book. And it provides an even happier ending. When did the plate come into the story?
ADRIANA: Right! And originally I did not have a plate breaking nor the shame of having messed up. I had lots of good feedback on early versions of FLAN, but sometimes the reviewer would say the stakes weren’t very high, it’s missing tension, or that the story was ‘flat’. The summer before I sold the book, I had a brainstorm and remembered when I broke my mom’s wedding plate and how awful I felt. But, I didn’t hide it, in fact, I told her right away. I won’t go into her reaction, but it felt like a symbol to me. I was now a ‘big kid’ and I wasn’t going to hide my mistakes. So, I tried it in FLAN and it worked. It provided the necessary missing tension to move the story along.
TERRY: Anita isn’t only learning to make flan, but she is learning about her heritage. To me, once they use the plate that she made for her grandparents as a new flan plate, she becomes part of that heritage. I think that is a beautiful image. Did you mean for that to be part of the takeaway or am I putting words in your mouth?
ADRIANA: That is exactly it! Anita is meant to be a part of the continuity of the family. Like the branches of the family tree before her, she is as valid a member of the family as those that came before. Because it doesn’t matter where we are, we are still family, still connected. We are not in the land of our ancestors anymore, but we create new traditions wherever we are.
TERRY: I love creating new traditions wherever we are. One really stand-out character for me was Abuelo. He does Judo!!! And his picture in the book is so cool. That particular photograph brings the reader in to know that this is a true story. Real people. It has so much more meaning. Do you want to share your thoughts about your grandfather and your relationship?
ADRIANA: I have a seed of a story that’s Abuelo and Anita that I hope I get to tell one day. The judo element is at the heart of something that was always so interesting to me about humanity. We all contain multitudes. We all have everyday stories and backstories, and the people we encounter every day live completely full lives independent of our own. As a kid, I was enthralled by this. I would get very lost in my mom’s high school yearbook and my grandparents’ albums wondering about the lives they lived before I ever knew them. My grandfather had a troubled childhood and sometime in the 1920’s, Japan sent ambassadors to Cuba to teach judo as a way of building friendships with other nations. It became an outlet for my grandfather who flourished under the guidance and discipline of a judo practice and meditation practice. He passed on the meditation practice but refused to teach me judo!
TERRY: Well, now, you’ve taught me a bit of our history that I never knew. Thank you! You have been shaped by not only Cuba and the United States, but you lived in Germany for a long time. Can you tell us what or whether that has added to your journey?
ADRIANA: Living in Germany, I gained a deeper understanding of what it means to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture as an adult. I understood to a tiny degree what it meant for my family to leave everything and move to another country with hope of a better future in your heart. I miss the safe feeling of everyday life in Germany and I miss my friends. I also learned a lot about how a country rebuilds after a great tragedy.
TERRY: I get that. And I have seen, just in travels, the amazing job that Germany has done of rebuilding. They are admirable. Now let’s talk about your relationship to your abuelita. Do your own children have an abuelita and an abuelito? What is their relationship and how does it compare to your own?
ADRIANA: I was raised by my grandparents. My mom worked nights for a while and so my mom would drop us off and we’d stay in after school care or Abuelita picked us up from school. We all lived in the same house for most of my childhood, and my mom was a single mom until I was 17. The grandkids have a really, really different relationship with their grandma.
TERRY: Tell me about the recipe for flan. In my family, my cousins and I, who are the top generation left of the Melendez women, have been known to have flan bake offs. When we get together for a weekend, we all make our flans using our different recipes and different ways. Was this recipe part of your family or is this something you perfected yourself? To be honest, I have never had a flan with cream cheese, although, I do know that cream cheese is something that my mother used on everything. I see that the recipe is five eggs, which is what I use, but I only use half a cup of sugar for the caramel. And you put it in the blender! Brilliant. You taught me something. I always beat it with a whisk, and I must admit, my texture isn’t optimal. Those are some of the differences in making flan.
ADRIANA: Ah! Yes! So, yes, there was a Rodriguez v Quesada rivalry for us. My Tía Ines and my great-aunt Marta would unofficially have bake-offs. Marta claimed to be the queen of flan, and pastries in general, but she’d use the dry method of making caramel and often it would be pretty bitter! So, as a little girl, I would refuse to eat her caramel sauce and ask for Tía Ines’s which was sweeter. Tía Ines added a splash of water to the sugar to prevent burning. And this led to some rivalry between the two because Ines would tell Marta that the kids all ate her flan. In the recipe included with the book, the addition of the cream cheese is to give beginners a high success rate with the flan. The queso crema acts as a binder, stabilizer and adds richness. My mom’s best friend Gisela would add it to be sure it would set. If you’re doing the classic flan de leche, then you can just omit the cream cheese. Also, if you’re getting lots of bubbles all up the sides of the custard, your heat might be too high! Low and slow is the best way to go!
TERRY: Thank you for that tip. I do make my caramel the dry way, but under very low heat. If it ever burns, I throw it out and start over. Now let’s talk about cooking. Cooking is important to both of us. I express my love through food. Whenever I don’t know what to do to help someone, I cook. I wonder whether you feel that way. Is this a personal thing, or is this a Cuban thing?
ADRIANA: Oh my goodness! Is it a Cuban thing? I don’t know, but I do the EXACT same thing. I jokingly call it ‘procrastibaking’ when I can’t figure out the solution to something and bake instead of ruminating. It’s one of the few activities that I can just focus on and make something while subconsciously processing something else!
TERRY: Let’s talk in more detail about your art. What would you want our readers to know about your process and what it means to you.
ADRIANA: My artwork is always evolving. I love capturing textures that are real and mixing them with digital media and back and forth (analog and digital). I think traditional media informs my digital work and vice versa.
TERRY: Can you tell us more about your other published work?
ADRIANA: I am so excited about my next book TUMBLE that comes out in 2023 published by Scholastic. It’s the first time I’ve worked on a nonfiction book!
TERRY: Abuelita could be any one of the many Cuban grandmothers I have known. She is perfect. I love her chancletas. Brava. Was she a composite or was she taken from real life? Abuelo?
ADRIANA: Aww thank you for saying so. The Abuelita character was drawn from a combination of several real-life people including my great aunt, Marta, and a mixture of both my grandmas (paternal and maternal). Abuelo is a mixture of my maternal grandfather and my late stepfather.
TERRY: What is in the future for you? Tell us about what you can tell and what you can’t tell. Is food involved?
ADRIANA: Hah! I’d love to illustrate more food books! I have one project I mentioned earlier, a nonfiction book TUMBLE (2023, Scholastic), and then I have another project that I can’t share yet which does have food and I cannot wait to talk about it!
TERRY: Adriana, it has been a pleasure interviewing you and I love your book. I love being with you in Las Musas. All the best to you, I’ll be here to cheer you on.
ADRIANA: Thanks, Terry! Thanks for a lovely interview. Wishing you the best – see you in Las Musas!
Buy Abuelita and I Make Flan today!
Adriana Hernández Bergstrom is a Cuban-American mixed-media illustrator and designer. A lifelong learner, she studied industrial design at RISD (‘08) and fine art & theatrical set design at the University of Miami, FL. She loves literacy and languages and speaks English, Spanish, and German. Adriana is represented by Wernick & Pratt literary agency. For all inquiries related to publishing please contact: info(at)wernickpratt(dot)com .
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 Musa Tamika Burgess is talking to Jennifer Torres, the author of Lola Out Loud, a powerful and inspiring imagined story about real-life civil rights activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta that reminds us that even our biggest heroes started out small.
Her grandpa calls her “Lolita Siete Lenguas”—Little Lola, Seven Tongues, all fighting to be heard. Lola is trying not to make so much noise, but when she witnesses injustices in her own neighborhood, she knows she can’t keep quiet. Can Lola find a way to use her voice for change? ¡Sí, se puede!
Inspired by the real-life civil rights activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta, Lola Out Loud is a warm and rollicking picture book that reminds us that sometimes one strong voice is just what we need.
Tamika Burgess: Congratulations on the release of Lola Out Loud. It is such a well-written, beautiful story. You did an excellent job of displaying Lola’s voice and really set the foundation for the woman Dolores Huerta would become. How did writing Lola Out Loud differ from writing your other books?
Jennifer Torres: Thank you so much. This story is close to my heart, and I’m proud to have had the opportunity to tell it. Although it is not strictly biographical—the plot is inspired by Huerta’s childhood—this book involved much more research than others I’ve written. In addition to striving for authenticity when it came to the historical look, sound, and feeling of the character Lola’s home and community, it was important to me to enrich the story with details from the real Huerta’s childhood: that she loved to dance, for example, and that her grandfather nicknamed her “Siete Lenguas” because she talked so much. I learned as much about Huerta as I could in biographies, documentaries, and news articles from the 1960s up to today. And I loved getting to know her voice by reading and listening her speeches, letters, and interviews. The process left me even more inspired than when I started.
TB: Where did the idea for this book come from? Why was it important for you to write a story about young Dolores Huerta?
JT: There were a number of inspirations for this book. I lived for many years in Stockton, a city at the heart of California, in a region that isn’t what we typically imagine when we think about the Golden State, but that is nonetheless precious. It’s also where Dolores Huerta spent much of her childhood and where her activism began. For most of the time I lived in Stockton, I worked as a newspaper reporter, covering migrant education and spending time with farm workers who still face many of the injustices that Huerta and other leaders struggled (and continue struggling) against. I once had the privilege of interviewing her when she spoke at an elementary school named in her honor, and it struck me that the students listening—growing up in the neighborhoods where she grew up and where she would go on to organize—could one day have a similar impact in their communities and beyond. I think that’s where the seed for this story was first planted.
I was also inspired by my own family, which includes relatives who worked in fields and canneries. The communities they created and cared for helped them survive, and their belief in a better future made my life possible. I hope this story honors them.
Huerta has said that some of her earliest lessons in social justice came from her mother, Alicia, and the respect and compassion she offered to farmworkers who stayed at the hotel she ran in Stockton. I find that such a powerful and hopeful reminder that seemingly small acts of care for community can be the roots of powerful change. That’s why I wanted to focus on Huerta’s childhood.
TB: There are other picture books about Dolores Huerta. How does Lola Out Loud differ?
JT: There are some wonderful children’s books about Dolores Huerta, including Monica Brown’s Side by Side/Lado a lado and Dolores Huerta: Get to Know the Voice of Migrant Workers by Robert Liu-Trujllio, to name just two that I admire. And Aida Salazar has an upcoming middle grade historical fiction novel in verse, A Seed in the Sun, which features Huerta and is set during the 1965 protests for farmworkers’ rights. I’m really looking forward to it.
One of the ways Lola Out Loud is different is that it focuses on Huerta’s childhood, as we discussed previously. It also uses an imagined episode to illustrate the beginnings of her activism and what would become her voice.
TB: I love when Lola’s mom tells her, “When you see a problem, fix it.” And later, Lola uses that like her marching orders/ her call to action. There are many, but can you share one thing you want readers to take away from the story?
JT: Oh, thank you! I love that moment too, and love thinking about it as a call to action. Something else I hope the story does is acknowledge that it isn’t always easy to raise your voice. We doubt ourselves. We worry about making trouble. It’s okay to be afraid at first as long as, in the end, we find our courage and speak up. I hope young readers take away the idea that their voices, even now, are precious and powerful and meant to be heard.
TB: The illustrations are excellent. What role did you play? Was there anything you wanted to be included in the images? A specific way you wanted Lola or anyone/anything else to look?
JT: I’m so lucky to have been able to work with Sara Palacios on this book! Her gorgeous illustrations bring such warmth and heart to the story. While I shared some reference photos early on—mainly of Stockton in the 1930s and 40s—all credit goes to Sara and her vision and talent.
It was a hope of mine that the illustrations might reflect some of the diversity of the farmworkers’ movement in which people young and old, and from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds—including Mexican-Americans and Filipino-Americans—stood side-by-side. I think Sara did a beautiful job.
TB: You’ve written picture books, middle-grade books, and a chapter book series. Do you have a preference? How does your process differ when writing different genres?
JT: I love them all! When it comes to middle grade books, the opportunity to meet readers at a moment when their world is becoming bigger is such a special one. Chapter books, meanwhile, come with the joy of knowing your words will become some small part of children’s discovery of themselves as readers. And picture books bring the magic of shared reading and of words and images working together to tell a story.
Picture books have to convey so much in such a small space that, I think, when approaching one, I spend a lot more time asking myself, “Where is the heart of this story? What is this story really about?” before I start writing. That way every scene—maybe even every sentence—points toward that heart.
TB: You used to be a newspaper reporter. How has that experience helped you with your fiction writing?
JT: On the practical side, being a reporter made me very comfortable with writing as a collaborative process. I love being edited and am amazed at what can happen when ideas are shared and pulled apart and put back together.
Even more importantly, I think, journalism also helped me make a habit of curiosity and observation—wondering what if and why, watching for telling details, and listening for telling words. Working as a local journalist, I spent a lot of time writing about extraordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people. In many ways, that’s what I still do now.
TB: In what ways has your Mexican-American identity shaped your writing?
JT: I share this story often: that when I was in high school, my mom went to a bilingual educators’ conference and brought me home a copy of Chicana Falsa by the late Michele Serros. It was the first time I saw myself in a book and heard myself in an author’s voice. It changed everything I understood about who could be an author and whose stories could be told. Not long after, I wrote the piece that was my first to ever be published, a newspaper column about making tamales with my family. I don’t think that was a coincidence. Since then, I’ve continued to weave parts my identity and my experience—my heritage, my culture, the mix of English and Spanish I grew up hearing—into my books. They’re not autobiographical, but they’re true in another sense, and I hope they show young readers that their stories belong in books too.
TB: With your first picture book published in 2015, it’s safe to say you are pretty experienced in the fiction-writing world. What advice do you have to offer a writer just getting started?
JT: It’s a little strange to step back and know it’s been so long because I feel like I’m still learning so much! Some advice from my newspaper days that I still find very valuable is to save string. To have a place, a notebook or a computer file, where you hang on to those scraps of ideas, bits of inspiration, half-overheard conversations (that’s the string!) that catch your attention. I think it helps keep me open to possibilities and unexpected connections, and it’s a good place to come back to when I get stuck.
I’d also encourage writers to read a thread that author Emma Otheguy shared recently that really resonated with me. Her advice was to “Keep coming back.”
For as long as I’ve been an author, I’ve had a job outside of books and probably always will. Almost every word I’ve written has been in the couple of hours before my kids wake up and, if I’m not too tired, after they’ve gone to bed. My writing life might not look like I once thought it would or should, but what makes me a writer is the writing, and it all adds up to real books.
TB: What are you currently working on? What can we expect from you next?
JT: The fourth book in the Catalina Incognito chapter book series will be released in November, and I can’t wait to share it! Dreaming up persnickety Catalina’s magical sewing adventures has been such a bright spot over the past challenging years. Then, in February, The Win-Over, a sequel to The Do-Over, my pandemic-set, middle grade spin on The Parent Trap is due out from Scholastic. I’m currently working on a new series with Scholastic, Bad Princesses—about a pair of villains desperate to escape their school for royalty-in-training—and a couple of other projects I’m excited to share more about soon!
Purchase Lola Out Loud today!
Jennifer Torres is the author of Stef Soto, Taco Queen; Lola Out Loud; the Catalina Incognito series; The Do-Over; and many other books for young readers. She writes stories about home, friendship, and unexpected courage inspired by her Mexican-American heritage. Jennifer started her career as a newspaper reporter, and even though she writes fiction now, she hopes her stories still have some truth in them. She holds a doctorate in education and lives with her family in Southern California.
Tamika Burgess is a storyteller with over a decade of novel, TV/film, and personal essay writing experience. Born to parents who migrated from Panamá, Tamika has always taken a particular interest in writing themes that explore her Black Latina identity. Because of her passion for spreading the knowledge of Black Panamanian culture, Tamika has been featured on various websites, podcasts, and panels. When she is not writing, Tamika is somewhere cozy online shopping and listening to a podcast. Tamika resides in sunny Southern California.
Today on the blog, we've got an interview between Musa Terry Catasus Jennings and Musa Rebecca Balcárcel, author of Shine On, Luz Véliz!
Have you ever been the best at something . . . only to lose it all?
“I wanted to hug the book when I finished. If you have ever believed in the power of second chances, Luz Véliz will light up your heart.” — Christina Soontornvat, Newbery Honor author
“[A]bsorbing and skillfully paced, laced with insight and warmth. Inspiring, smart, and beautifully written.”. — Starred Kirkus review
Terry Catasus Jennings: Hi Rebecca, I am so happy to be here with you talking about your newest book, Shine On Luz Véliz! I was able to read an early copy of this, and my hat is off to you. What a complex, layered story about a girl who, because of an accident, becomes, in her own words, a “bran muffin girl, instead of blueberry cinnamon.” Can you tell us about your story and what inspired you to write it?
Rebecca Balcárcel: Thanks, Terry! The spark for this book was meeting my real-life half-sister. We didn’t know about each other until adulthood, but when I started imagining what it would have been like to meet as kids, I knew I had to write about it! For Luz’s internal struggle, I turned to one of my own. As a kid, my parents praised me a lot and celebrated every accomplishment. This was mostly great, but at some point it occurred to me that maybe I was doing some things just for the kudos. I lost track of the inherent value in activities, and I lost track of my inherent value. This is exactly Luz’s problem. She’s so invested making her parents cheer that she forgets her worth as a person when she loses her soccer star status.
TCJ: I saw that. Her self-worth was tied to the cheers she got from her mom and dad, particularly her dad. And there are so many layers in the book, Rebecca. Let’s first take the layer of Luz’s accident. The loss that Luz feels is so well developed. When she is cleaning out the closet of her life and ridding it of all things soccer, with nothing to replace that love, the reader feels that angst. Readers understand that Luz’s identity is wrapped up in soccer and now she is lost. What was that idea based on? Did you ever have a moment like that?
RB: I did! I was a choir kid in school, and I sang at home with my parents and the guitar. I was chosen for a special group, and I did well at solo contests. I didn’t expect it to end, but it did. A particular choir director chose to embarrass me in class at a time when I was struggling emotionally already. I cried in front of everyone. The director made it clear that I wouldn’t be in her good graces anymore. I just couldn’t go back. I took up the flute and made a new home for myself in band. It turned out to be for the best, but I had to reinvent myself.
TCJ: Oh man. I was embarrassed by a choir teacher. That was in fifth grade for me. It was devastating! You’re right, I couldn’t go back to choir. And I see you really dug deep. Luz at one point says that she’s “basically okay, except she isn’t.” Her relationship to her father is so central to her identity. And her relationship to her father is primarily through soccer. Now she feels invisible. She feels like she has no worth. Then here he comes and brings a new sister for her — a person on whom he is showering all the attention he’s not showering on Luz. Tell us about how Luz feels about her dad.
RB: Luz is sad that she and her dad aren’t connecting the way they used to. Soccer gave them an automatic talk topic and an easy way to spend time together. With that gone, Luz isn’t sure what to offer. She thinks it’s on her to impress him. Worse, Dad is pulling away because he feels responsible for Luz’s injury. He doesn’t want to cause any new hurt, so he’s kind of ghosting her. Ironically, that hurts her. Until Luz calls him on it, her dad doesn’t even realize what he’s been doing. With his “new” daughter, it’s easier. He knows what to do -- show her around and make her feel welcome. With Luz, he’s a little lost until the end.
TCJ: Why don’t you tell us all about that new sister, Solana? What did you want to this new sister to do for Luz? On top of this girl coming, she is gregarious, even though she doesn’t know the language. It’s a very compelling situation in which Luz is placed. Tell us more.
RB: It was fun to write Solana because I admire her. She’s based on my real-life half-sister and also my immigrant cousins. Solana manages to move to a new place, please her new parents, adapt to a new school, and become a sister to Luz – all with a smile and a flare for making people happy. She’s pretty, too! Luz feels outshone, of course, and we eventually learn why Solana is trying especially hard. Luz learns a lot from Solana, the main thing being to appreciate people for who they are, including herself.
TCJ: An unsung hero in this story is the mother. She all of a sudden has to take in another woman’s daughter and sees everything that is going on with the family. Tell us how you came to this character.
RB: You’re so right! The mom is quietly, reliably making everything run smoothly, despite change and challenges. I guess this is most women I know! Especially, though, it’s a lot like my own mom. She has a big heart, but she isn’t one for self-pity. She faces things and gets to work solving the problem. She makes the best of things. Several times we opened our home to my father’s siblings and their families when they first arrived in the USA. Both my parents helped them start their life here, but mom was the paperwork do-er and the one to nail down the details, all with positivity and generosity. I try to be like her.
TCJ: So right. The moms are the ones who make things work. What a wonderful role model. I loved the character of Mr. Mac, who lives across the street. If you think of the hero’s journey, he is the mentor. He is the one who tells Luz the truth without varnish in a way that she can accept it. He guides her to accept what she has to accept. He does so much for Luz, yet, he has problems of his own, which his actions all the more admirable. What can you tell us about him?
RB: Yes, he really is that Gandalf-Dumbldore-Yoda mentor! My grandfather was the inspiration for Mr. Mac. Not only was he gently honest, funny, and wise, but his basement woodshop was magical. It was filled with saws, chisels, mallets, and hammers of different sizes, plus dowels, boards, blocks, and planks. The sense of creative possibilities and the smell of sawdust in the air never left me. Luz and Mr. Mac’s intergenerational friendship propelled this story for me. My grandfather’s knowing smile and his maker space in the basement provided continual touchstones. As you mention, though, the character Mr, Mac has his own challenges. He has an autistic grandson, and we learn that his hand tremors and occasional mood swings are caused by early-stage Parkinson’s. I took both of these situations from my own life: my dad had Parkinson’s, and I’m an au-some mom, with twin sons who are autistic.
TCJ: Rebecca, those two relationships come through so clearly, I knew there must be some very deep connections that helped you draw that character. There is one more layer, and that is her relationship with Skyler, her soccer buddy. Once Luz is no longer on the soccer team, Skyler becomes distant. Luz is jealous of the life that Skyler has because Skyler is still on the soccer team, she still has the same old friends. (All that Luz has lost due to her accident.) But there is a point in the book where Luz realizes that Skyler doesn’t have it all. That is one more opportunity for growth for Luz. Was that always part of the plan?
As I was writing the ending few chapters, I realized that I wanted to close the loop with Skyler. The girls separate, as you say, and I thought it would be cool to brings them back together after Luz grows into her new self. Luz wasn’t able to see Skyler clearly until after regaining some confidence. Then Luz can be a better friend. She can appreciate Skyler as a person, not only as a teammate who helped her win. This is when Luz finds out that Skyler doesn’t have a perfect life, and she’s now at a point where she can be empathetic. Luz is learning that people are deeper than they appear and that everyone is dealing with something.
TCJ: That is absolutely her growth pattern. She realizes that everyone is dealing with something. In the book Luz takes up computer coding, making robots. It is a drastic turn in her life. When you were a young wife and three months pregnant, you rode 1300 miles on a bicycle from Houston to Santa Fe. Your description about your move is you “climbed out of our former lives determined to see who we were.” Looking at Luz and her move to robotics made me think about that. Any connection?
I see what you mean! Yes, that bike trip was a real quest for identity, a literal journey that had a psychological goal. It’s scary to give up who you thought you were, but it’s also scary to look up and wonder if your life doesn’t match your true self. So, yes, Luz and I both made a drastic change. There’s a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called, “The Art of Losing.” Both Luz and I had to learn that losing makes space for something new. And neither of us knew what that “new” would look like. We had to let Life bring something, and we had to be open to it. You could also say, as Mr. Mac, does, that we had to build the new self deliberately – to select what we wanted to include in our lives and to select who we wanted to be there.
TCJ: You are very deliberate in your exposition of the gang problems which forced Solana to come to the United States. That also took courage. What can you tell us about that?
RB: For the storyline, I needed Solana to have a reason to leave Guatemala, but the two main reasons I made Solana’s mother a victim of gang violence are 1) real families are fleeing violence right now, and their appeals for asylum in the US have been handled in cruel ways 2) my own family was touched by violence when my aunt’s brother was shot for reasons and by people we’ll never know. While my book emphasizes the beauty of Guatemala and its people, I wanted to show these realities as well in hopes of raising readers’ awareness and empathy.
TCJ: It is a very difficult topic, but it helps Luz Veliz shine even more. You show very clearly the fear that many immigrants, even legal immigrants have of ICE. Another very courageous position. Thank you for doing that. Why was it important for you to broach that subject?
RB: Kids are living with this fear, and I didn’t want to ignore that. Lots of immigrant families have members with a variety of legal statuses — citizen, green card holder, legal resident, etc. Complications can arise that put a mother or grandfather or a cousin in jeopardy of being deported, even when trying to do things the legal way. Also, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers aren’t always treating people with dignity. And they make mistakes. I’ve heard of citizens running away during a raid just because they were afraid that they wouldn’t be believed, meaning a delay in being treated like the citizen they are. Kids with undocumented family members are suffering even more because they know their caregiver might be gone when they get home from school. It’s heartbreaking. I want to add that US policies in Central America have shaped that region’s economy and government. My mother served in Guatemala in the Peace Corps, but not every action by our country has been as positive in its consequences.
TCJ: Well, that’s something that all of have in common, “not every action by our country has been as positive in its consequences.” Cuban history is rife with that, as well, unfortunately. Let’s talk about book one vs. two. How different was writing Luz from writing The Other Half of Happy?
RB: So different! I wrote Happy over six years, with the leisure of creating something in isolation, just sharing with my critique group with no deadlines and no knowledge of the publishing industry. Happy started as a book of prose poems! When I got an agent, I turned it into a novel and revised a lot. When it sold, I still didn’t have a clear plot. I added the main plot in the last big rewrite. Can you believe it? With Luz, I knew I wanted to write a novel. I wrote a synopsis and an outline. The book sold with that and ten chapters. I wrote it in about nine months total (only five months after the contract was signed), doing the bulk of the drafting in spring 2020 during lock-down. A deadline from the publisher helped!
TCJ: And let’s end by talking about craft. You have written essays and poetry. Tell me about your writing journey.
RB: I trained as a poet, getting an MFA and having a small university press publish my first book, but I love all the genres. Non-fiction has the power of “this really happened!” plus a sense of one-on-one with the reader. Fiction gives me room to follow a character across time and meet all the people in their world. Poetry-writing created a rich soil for me, though, because it taught my ears music, and it gave me permission to play with figurative language. I set myself free in poetry in ways that would have been hard had I started in fiction. Now I can bring that experience to my novels. I hope it makes them interesting, sentence by sentence, as well as interesting at a story level. My goal is to harness all the powers of language to touch heads and hearts.
RB: I love those words, harnessing all the powers of language to touch heads and hearts. Thank you. Now, can you tell us what is in the future for you? What can you share with us?
TCJ: I'm excited to share that Inkyard Press will release Boundless, an anthology of short stories written about and by multi-racial/cultural authors, in summer 2023! I co-edited the collection with YA author, Ismée Williams, and also contributed a story. I hope the book will give multi-culturals representation and give everyone an insider's look at the experience. It's been an honor to work with the contributors, which include some of my idols like Jasmine Warga and Erin Entrada Kelly. I'm also drafting a new novel that uses magical realism and takes place in Guatemala!
TCJ: That sounds like an all-star cast. I am very excited to see that book that you co-edited with Ismée and which features Latina powerhouses. Wonderful. And I can’t wait to see what you do with magical realism in Guatemala. It was delightful to talk with you and I wish you the very best in the future.
Order Shine On, Luz Véliz today!
Bi-cultural Rebecca Balcárcel loves popcorn, her kitty, and teaching her students at Tarrant County College as Associate Professor of English. She is the author of SHINE ON, LUZ VÉLIZ! and THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, which was named a Pura Belpré Honor Book, an ALSC Notable Book, and the Best Middle Grade Book by Texas Institute of Letters. Her next book, a collection of short stories by multi-racial/multi-cultural authors, comes out in 2023. Rebecca is both a co-editor and a contributor.
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.
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