About The Other Half of Happy...
Twelve-year-old Quijana likes to say that she used to be Pangaea. Unsplit. Not half white or half Latina. But that was before her Guatemalan cousins moved to town. Before her dad seemed ashamed that she isn’t more in touch with her Latinx heritage. Before her parents planned a family trip to Guatemala where she’ll feel like a failure from first tortilla to last. Now her continents are splitting apart. With the help of two new friends and kid-powered ingenuity, Quijana makes a plan to ditch the trip. After all, she’s never been great at Spanish, and she never asked to be named after Don Quixote, Spain’s most famous loser. Will she find happiness by staying half?
In the beginning of Rebecca Balcárcel’s moving and heartfelt middle grade novel The Other Half of Happy, narrator Quijana Carrillo declares, “That’s what it’s like being twelve. Everything rolling toward you.”
And what’s rolling toward Quijana? A new school. A blossoming crush. A little brother whose behavior no one can explain. Expectations from her parents that Quijana feels she’ll never be able to meet.
Complicating these issues is Quijana’s bicultural identity. The daughter of an Anglo mother and Guatemalan father, she doesn’t speak Spanish and is embarrassed of her father’s accent. She doesn’t appreciate the intricately embroidered huipil her abuela sent her. She exists in the gray space deeply understood by children straddling two cultures. Children who want to fit in with their peers, want to please their parents, and want to understand themselves.
Children like me.
Mirrors, Windows and Walls: 8 Children’s Books for Seeing Ourselves, Others and Breaking Down the Walls that Separate Us
We have so much information. We have voices on the TV and hot takes on social media. We have photographs that pierce our hearts and haunt our dreams. We have oceans of ink spent on getting the details, the facts – and sometimes the lies – just right. As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop said, we need mirrors and windows to understand people who are like us (or like our parents or grandparents) and people who are not like us. We need something greater than information. We need story.
In my debut YA novel, The Grief Keeper, Marisol Morales crosses borders, sacrifices her physical and mental well-being and endures racism, for the chance of safety for her sister, Gabi, and herself. I can easily understand why someone would risk so much, but I am a daughter of immigrants. The idea of having to flee your homeland, whether because of violence or because of a lack of opportunities does not seem farfetched to me at all. But I know that for some people, it can seem foolish, or downright selfish. My intention in writing The Grief Keeper was to engender understanding and deep empathy—of ourselves and of others who are not like us.
Here are 8 books for children that I think do the same.
We are so excited to reveal to you the DELIGHTFUL cover of Kim Baker's THE WATER BEARS!
But that's not all! In addition to revealing this lovely cover we are also sharing the first chapter AND doing an ARC GIVEAWAY!
To enter leave a comment at the end of this blog post! (Open until August 15th)
ABOUT WATER BEARS...
Newt Gomez has a thing with bears.
Last year, he survived a bear attack. Now he finds an unusual bear statue that just might grant wishes. Newt’s best friend, Ethan, notices a wishbone on the statue and decides to make a wish. When it comes true, Newt thinks it’s a coincidence. Even as more people’s wishes come true, Newt is not convinced.
But Newt has a wish too: while he loves his home on eccentric Murphy Island, he wants to go to middle school on the mainland where his extended family lives. There, he’s not the only Latinx kid, he won’t have to drive the former food truck— a gift from his parents— and he won’t have to perform in the vaudeville festival. Most importantly, on the mainland, he can escape memories of the attack. Newt is almost ready to make a secret wish when everything changes.
Tackling themes of survival and self-acceptance, Newt’s story illuminates the magic in our world, where reality is often uncertain but always full of salvageable wonders.
The Water Bears is a quirky, empowering story arriving April 21, 2020 from Wendy Lamb Books, Random House Children’s Books.
Read the 1st chapter...
Las Musas are thrilled to host the exclusive first look at the cover of Loriel Ryon's debut INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS!
INTO THE TALL, TALL GRASS comes out April 7, 2020 from Margaret K. McElderry Books. Learn more about this gorgeous debut and cover below!
Read the dynamite first chapter...
Yolanda crept to the bedroom door, cracking it just so and peering inside. Her abuela, Wela, was lying in bed with a yellow serape tucked beneath her arms, her chest barely rising. Three orange-and-black butterflies nestled into her long white curls, their wings opening and closing ever so slightly as the morning sun flickered through the tree branches outside the window. It was exactly the same sight it had been for the past two weeks.
Yolanda sighed in disappointment and pushed open the door, letting it groan loudly on its hinges, hoping the sound would cause Wela to stir. Wake up. Wela, please wake up. But Wela didn’t move.
Was this all her fault? She sighed and walked over to the nightstand, twisting the vase of scarlet milkweed blossoms toward the light. Two butterflies sipped nectar from the wilting flowers. She brought the vase to Wela’s fingertips in hopes that her touch would liven the blossoms. But they remained wilted, and she made a mental note to switch them out before she left for school.
The way the light danced across the serape and the fine lines surrounding Wela’s closed pale lips made Yolanda’s heart sink even lower. She’d seen this before, less than a year ago.
On this new moon, we are delighted to share a conversation Las Musas had with Aida Salazar about her just released debut book, THE MOON WITHIN. But first, enjoy this slide show of Las Musas' love for the book. Read till the end and comment for your chance to receive a signed copy of The Moon Within!
This book deals with menstruation, which many adults are still reluctant to discuss openly. What is one menstruation myth you absolutely wanted to debunk in this novel?
I didn’t want to debunk a myth per se but more of a general attitude towards menstruation that is absent of respect, reverence and love toward a natural phenomenon that half of humanity experiences. Patriarchal and puritanical views of menstruation have created a culture of silence and shame that has hurt many and that needs to be dismantled. My intention was to show a world where respect, reverence and love for our cycles was the norm, the expectation, and a way to push back against the negative and hurtful attitudes we’ve endured.
One character in The Moon Within begins the process of transitioning during the novel as they explore their gender. Why is it important to discuss menstruation in the context of diverse gender identities?
This book was written for blooming menstruators of all genders. I wanted the blossoming of the main character (girlhood into womanhood) to mirror the blossoming of her best friend into his gender, a xochihuah. Each blossoming is a universe apart but similar in its impact and understanding of their own coming of age during a tender age.
Most of the people who menstruate are girls or women and sometimes menstruators are gender expansive. Though I don’t go into Marco’s specific experience with menstruation and only really hint at it because I didn’t think I could authentically tell that story as a cis gender woman, I wanted to include in the book the notion that bodies, regardless of gender, can and do bleed monthly so as to expand understanding for readers that menstruation is not only a woman’s experience. Also, I included La Chuyina, the trans feminine character to affirm that womanhood too, is not dependent on bleeding.
What I could speak to was how clumsy and wrong we can be when we aren’t good allies to our gender expansive friends. I sought to challenge readers, my community in particular, in our often-bigoted views. I used Mesoamerican philosophy to help us remember that our pre-colonial ideas of gender were more fluid than the binary that is dominant today. I saw an opportunity to show how one community used a different approach, one that was grounded in Mexica spirituality, to show compassion and respect for gender expansiveness.
Your first two published novels will both be MG verse novels. What do you find most compelling about this format? Do you always write poetry?
Poetry has been with me since my first writings as a teen. Though I also write prose, I always aim for my prose to be infused with poetry and lyricism. This is the kind of writing I like to read and find most intriguing -- writing that is rich in metaphor, and unusual phrasing, writing that enters the emotional essence of a character to show us a truth about humanity that we don’t often see. I love verse novels for these very same qualities. There is a tension at play between elements that poetry gives us (economy of words, metaphor, simile, form, white space, etc.) and the standard elements in crafting a story (conflict, plot, character arc, etc.) I love the hybridity of this space, I love this tension. With verse novels you can’t spend too much time waxing poetic because you do have a story to tell but you can bring the poetic point of view into every speech, action and plot point as you go. Verse novels are a wonderful space from which to tell a story that is unique, vulnerable and compelling at once.
Music plays such a big part of Celi’s journey. It wasn’t just a layer, but it connected to her journey of identity and history. Why was music so important? How did you work it into the text?
I’m a firm believer in the power of the arts (music, theater, dance, literature, visual art, etc.) to transform lives. Writing radically transformed mine. It gave me a connection to my history, developed my own spirituality, and gave me entry into many universes of understanding. I would argue that this is true for most practitioners of the arts. I wanted to show through Celi how dance and music are gateways to understanding, are cultural markers, identity builders, strength builders, and how ultimately, they are radical acts of love. I wanted to show readers that the arts, their own imaginations and expressions, are a wonderful place in which to find agency and strength.
What inspired you to write The Moon Within? And what do you hope readers will find in the story?
I was inspired to write The Moon Within as my eleven-year-old daughter began to ask questions about her changing body. As a Xicana feminist, I wanted to offer her a different way into the understanding of this important transformation than I had been given. I wanted her experience to be grounded in body-positive self-knowledge and self-love, in a connection to her ancestry, and the power that is inherent in all of that beauty. I’ve been a moon disciple for decades — marveling, exploring, and ritualizing our connection to her — through astrology, astronomy, spirituality, and the study of pre-colonial Mexican history. We held a ceremony to honor my daughter’s menstruation that was informed by this love of the moon. As a writer, I wanted to share our experience of this magical ritual through story with other children. While there are numerous nonfiction books about menstruation for middle grades, there is a gaping hole in fictional literature for this group. It is very likely (and I say this with a great amount of disbelief and grief) that The Moon Within is the first book in forty-seven years, since Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, to center menstruation in its narrative. It is the first (again, incredulously and sadly) to ever fictionally reflect menstruation from the Latinx perspective. I was very intentional about sharing ideas of the beauty and power of menstruation Mesoamerican traditions teach us that departed from the often-negative views of our current patriarchal and colonized society. I wanted to reframe the conversation around menstruation by showing what would happen if we, in fact, honored and revered these processes instead.
I was happy to see that Celi was a relatively early bloomer, and I think a lot of girls of color will relate to that. Did you ever consider a different age for Celi, and how did you settle on eleven?
Early bloomers walk on a tight rope of these two massively different worlds. It is difficult to be wholly a child and yet your body does these wild things. Breast buds, pubic hair, smelly pits, moon cylces – it is all the more confusing the younger you are. My daughter entered puberty early (much earlier than I did) and I found it necessary to try to demystify it age-appropriately so that she could understand it without fear. As I began to ask around, I discovered that many women I knew or in my family had started as early as nine! This further affirmed my resolve to keep Celi at eleven and to show that this tight rope can be walked successfully for someone that young.
Thank you so much for joining us in the conversation. To purchase THE MOON WITHIN, visit Booklandia (a Latina-owned online bookseller) or other independent bookstores as well as major retailers where books are sold.
Enter a comment below for your chance to win a signed copy of THE MOON WITHIN!
Happy new moon!
Gather round, gente! There is Las Musas magic brewing over Anna Meriano's just released novel, A Sprinkle of Spirits - the sequel to her debut, Love Sugar Magic! Las Musas sat down with Anna to ask how she brought her newest book to life.
*Read to the end to find out how you can enter to win a GIVEAWAY of this magical book!
In A Sprinkle of Spirits, Leonora Logroño is finally learning her family's bakery bruja magic, but trouble bubbles up again when her dead grandmother appears in her room! It turns out that spirits are popping back to life all over town, and Leo will need help to solve the mystery of what caused the chaos--and how to stop it! The Logroños return in a new story featuring a heaping helping of amor, azúcar, and magia.
What were your personal experiences that motivated you to write the Love Sugar Magic series?
The seed for this series came from Cake Literary, but I loved how the story felt personal. So much of Leo and her tight-knit family comes from my life, and I love that I get to write about language, family, community, Texas, and food in a way that feels true to me. One of the main goals of the series is to celebrate the joy of Leo’s family traditions, and even though her family has some differences from mine (unfortunately, we are not magical bakers), that joy is coming from my own experience.
What is your personal relationship with magic, in, like, your real daily life?
I love this question so much! I feel like it’s hard to organize my answer because I have so many different thoughts about this. I’ve always believed in magic in a nonspecific way, fascinated by everything from catholic saints to fairies to psychic powers. We light Guadalupe candles in my house when we’re hoping for something or going through a hard time, and I heard stories about how my grandma used to fast on days that my dad had important tests in school. When I’m in a rational mood, I think that being a human is full of uncertainty and confusion, and different mystical and spiritual beliefs help us process and overcome our fear in a healthy way; or I think that “magic” is actually scientific research that hasn’t been recognized by certain cultural systems. Other times I find it totally unbelievable to think that there is no magic in the world, especially when human knowledge and understanding falls so far short of explaining existence. These days I’m very interested in the magic power held by words and communication--the power to change minds and recreate the world.
You do a great job of portraying the complex relationships among sisters; what information did you draw upon since you yourself don’t have any sisters?
I don’t have sisters, but my mom is one of six sisters (and nine siblings total), so I hear a lot of their stories about growing up. I’m also very close with my cousins on both sides of my family, so I’m no stranger to being surrounded by a lot of relatives. Finally, I’m the middle child between my two brothers, so I feel like I can relate to sibling dynamics from both sides. Thanks Michael and Gabriel!
Describe your favorite place to create writing magic?
I’m a total coffee shop person. Working from home is convenient, but so much less efficient for me. I especially love places where there are lots of other folks working around me, because the peer pressure and background noise helps keep me focused. I used to worry about spending money on drinks, but one of my visual artist friend told me how much he spends to rent studio space and I calculated my monthly coffee shop bill and realized that I’m getting a bargain!
What is your “must have” to get into the writing zone?
I’ve become a time-thief of a writer lately, sneaking writing time into the odd half hours between work, so I’m a bit more flexible about getting into the zone now than I used to be, but I definitely do my best work when I have snacks readily available (another reason I love coffee shops)!
As a sophomore writer, what did you learn from your second novel, Love Sugar Magic-A Sprinkle of Spirits?
I learned how hard (but rewarding) it is to let your characters grow! We went back and forth a bit with the outline for book two because I didn’t want Leo to make the same mistakes she made before, but I still needed a plot to happen. I’m running into a similar issue with book three as well--it’s so interesting and exciting to have to find ways to challenge Leo and push her into bad decisions without undercutting her growth at the end of each book.
What do you hope readers take away from your Love Sugar Magic series?
I hope that each and every reader comes away feeling excited about the magic of their own ability, whether that’s baking, reading, or something else entirely. I hope that Mexican American kids see themselves and their families on the page, and I hope that all kids feel welcome in Rose Hill.
Your books have the most colorful, magical covers! Can you tell us about the illustrator?
MIRELLE ORTEGA! Mirelle is my favorite person and artist, and I feel so so lucky that she was able to bring Leo to life on two gorgeous covers (so far). I’ve seen firsthand the magical way the covers catch people’s--especially kids’--interest. If you want to see more from Mirelle, she’s illustrating Vote for Effie as well as some picture books, and she has beautiful artwork up on her website and available at her store! (I especially recommend her Mexican fairy tale t-shirts!)
What's a sinfully sugary dessert you and your character Leonora love?
Haha, the short answer is anything and everything! We both love puerquitos and pan dulce of all kinds, of course! We’re both extremely fond of cinnamon rolls, and I feel like I should also mention red bean buns since I’m eating one as I type this! The biggest difference in our tastes is that Leo is a little bit more of a dessert snob than I am--I am totally here for store-bought cookies and cupcakes that come wrapped in plastic with neon chemical frosting, while Leo prefers things that are more fresh and homemade.
What are you working on next?
Lots of exciting things! Most definite and probably most exciting, there is a third Love Sugar Magic book coming along that will deal with the slight cliffhanger at the end of book two (sorry not sorry). I’m also working with my agent Patricia Nelson to polish up a YA contemporary that includes a very magical sport. I’ve got a couple other secret or early stage projects that I’m hoping I can share more about soon, plus working with my wonderful students around Houston and hopefully traveling a bit to meet more writers and readers.
Leave a comment below to enter a chance to WIN your own copy of A Sprinkle of Spirits!
Want more of Anna Meriano? Follow Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Spirits Blog Tour!
February 5 Nerdy Book Club
February 7 Las Musas Reads
February 9 Charlotte's Library
February 10 A Library Mama
February 11 Boricua Reads
February 12 YAYOMG
February 13 Pragmaticmom
February 14 Latinos in Kidlit
February 14. 24hr.yabookblog
How can we complain about winter when it's already brought us such treasures such as middle-grade novel Blizzard Besties, from Argentine-American author Yamile (sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez? In addition to writing at break-neck speeds (she has five books coming out in the next two years!) Yamile is fútbol-obsessed, and loves meteor showers, summer, astrology, and pizza. She lives in Utah with her Puerto Rican husband and their five kids, two adorable dogs, and one majestic cat. An inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient, she’s also a graduate of Voices of Our Nations (VONA) and the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Writing for Children’s and Young Adult program. She’s a PB, MG, and YA author. She’s also the children’s lit guest editor at Hunger Mountain literary journal and a writing mentor.
Yamile’s Las Musas hermana Ann Dávila Cardinal interviewed her about this fabulous new release!
Tell us how Blizzard Bestiescame about. Give us some backstory on the story!
Blizzard Besties came from a need for adventure stories featuring kids of color in the current market. My main focus was to show kids having fun, getting in trouble, and navigating friendship and family dynamics.
Why a ski vacation novel? Do you ski?
My kids, Utah born and raised, love to ski and snowboard. Of course, in the 20+ years of living in Utah, I have been skiing a few times (that I can count with one hand), but I really don’t enjoy it. I’m a summer creature! We have cold winters in Argentina, where I’m from, and I’d detested being cold since I was a child. I’m even allergic to cold! (It’s a real condition. Look it up!). But honestly, snow is magical and beautiful. When I thought of the worst situation in which I could put my characters, trapped in a haunted house during blizzard was at the top of my list. Of course, I say this as an adult. For my kids and their friends, this scenario is the epitome of fun and adventure. Also, Utah’s slogan in “Best Snow on Earth,” and if you’re going to suffer in the snow, it might as well be in the best snow there is, right?
Dogs play a big role in this novel, are you a dog-person?
I’m an all-around animal person! I have two dogs I adore: Dandelion (Dandi) the Yorkie, and November (Nova) the Labradoodle. I also have a cat, Coraline (Cora). I love animals and my life wouldn’t be complete without them.
This is a novel about friendship. What is it you hope your readers will walk away with in terms of that important topic?
Friendship is such a vital element in life, not only as a child, but in every stage. I’m blessed with a multitude of friends whom I consider my family. I also wanted to show that friendships evolve, change, and sometimes die, and that’s okay. When there’s an unbalanced or unhealthy friendship, it’s okay to move on, and it’s okay to give people we’d never considered before a chance to become friends.
What advice might you have for newbie writers interested in writing for children?
My number one advice is to read. Read widely, read voraciously, read carefully, analyzing the books that resonate with you.
And my number two advice is to write. Write what interests and motivates you. Write voraciously and carefully. But most of all, write from the heart, even if it’s “only” an adventure story. It it’s not from the heart, you won’t connect to your readers. The main purpose of reading and writing is to connect with someone through time and space. Isn’t this a magical thing?
How did it feel to see Blizzard Bestieson the cover of the Scholastic flyer???
It was a dream come true! I didn’t grow up in the States, so I didn’t have the classic experience of attending the Scholastic Book Fair at school. But sometimes my mom ordered books from The Reader’s Circle catalog, and I used to pore over the brochures, reading the book summaries over and over although it was very rare when I got to order the books and much less read them. I had a flash of little Yamile seeing her book on the catalog, and my heart exploded in rainbows and shooting stars. As an adult, my favorite time of the year is when I see my kids super excited about the book fair coming to their school, and seeing my book in the catalog catapulted me to “cool mom” status among them.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on so many things! I have several books (both announced and unannounced) coming out through 2021. WHERE ARE YOU FROM?(PB, Harper, June 2019) and ON THESE MAGIC SHORES?(MG, Lee and Low/Tu Books 2020) are finished, and I can’t wait to share them with my readers! While I wait for them to be officially out, I’m revising a YA contemporary novel set in Argentina and featuring the #NiUnaMenos movement in Latin America, and another still secret MG for Scholastic that has a lot of the elements readers will love about BLIZZARD BESTIES.
So run out and get a copy of Blizzard Besties as a gift for someone you love!
Find the fabulous Yamile and follow her numerous upcoming releases at yamilesmendez.com and @YamileSMendez.
THE WIND CALLED MY NAME by Mary Louise Sanchez
Some days, ten-year-old Margarita Sandoval feels as if the wind might blow her away. The country has been gripped by the Great Depression, so times are hard everywhere. Then she has to leave her família in New Mexico -- especially her beloved Abuelita -- to move to Fort Steele, Wyoming, where her father has taken a job on the railroad.
When Margarita meets Caroline, she's excited to have a friend her own age in Wyoming. But it often seems like Caroline, like many other people in town, doesn't understand or appreciate the Sandovals' Hispanic heritage. At the same time, the Sandovals discover that Abuelita might lose her home unless they can pay off her tax bill. Can Margarita keep her friend, help her family in New Mexico, and find a place in Fort Steele for good?
What inspired you to write this book?
I wanted to give my mother her story about growing up in a small southern Wyoming town. She received the seven page version and I know she’d be excited to read this final version.
What message do you hope your book will send readers?
Honor diversity and let each person define how they see themselves.
What was the most difficult scene to write?
One scene where Margarita thinks Caroline is not a true friend tested me because I was writing from a personal memory and it was hard to define my emotions from the past.
What scene came the easiest?
Food scenes, especially involving New Mexican foods, are fairly easy because I still cook the foods and have strong memories of food and family that I like to return to in my writing.
What kind of research did you have to do for this book?
I read about the Great Depression and its effect on New Mexico and Colorado. I also read about the culture of the times in terms of music, famous people like Shirley Temple, and even politics. My brother explained the various jobs on the Union Pacific Railroad and the work conditions for section workers like my grandfather. My editor pressed for information about steam engines, so I researched them in order to describe my protagonist’s first impression of seeing one. We also took a trip to Fort Steele, Wyoming and this time I looked at the familiar town through my adult eyes and heard my aunt’s viewpoint growing up there during the Great Depression.
Did you draw on any personal or family stories for this novel?
My mother received a special gift at a school Christmas party when she was a child, and that became the impetus for the ending of my story. Growing up we always heard the various stories about ancestors, so some of that comes up in The Wind Called My Name, particularly when Margarita’s sister shares information in school about her great-grandfather serving in the Civil War in New Mexico.
Can you talk about what you’re working on next?
My picture book, again with New Mexican culture, got the “green light” that it’s ready to submit, according to a New York agent who heard it at our local Rocky Mountain SCBWI conference in September. After all the book launch hoopla dies down, I will submit the story. I’d also like to revisit my historical fiction middle grade story set during WWII in Wyoming.
If you could spend a day with any character in your book who would it be and why?
Of course I’ve love to see my mother again (she’s Margarita, the protagonist). We lost her to ovarian cancer sixteen years ago, but I’d also like to hear my great-grandmother Rufina (Maldonado) Maes’ stories of her ancestors. She’s Abuela Rufina in my story. I’ve been able to trace so many of her ancestors back to the 1500’s and 1600s’ and would love to hear her personal memories and stories.
The wind seems to be a prominent metaphoric theme in your story. Can you tell us how this came to be?
The wind stripped the land during the Great Depression and caused a great migration of New Mexican people, pushing them to seek jobs in Wyoming. In my story, people in Wyoming pushed back, like the ever present and familiar wind, against the new arrivals--especially if they were different.
This book’s storyline is reminiscent of Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry because it speaks about a family’s journey through financial and racial hardship during the Depression but of course, from a young Latina’s perspective. Was that book a source or an inspiration in any way? If not, from where did this story emerge?
I did reread the book because it was set during the Depression, so it had to have unconsciously influenced me to a degree. But the story emerged from my mother’s childhood memories of growing up in an old Civil War town that was originally built to protect the men who were building the railroad there.
When crafting the story, how did you decide to write from this point of view?
This story was always about Margarita’s point of view.
What drew you to write a piece of historical fiction?
I’m a big history and genealogy buff and I love delving into the past to learn people’s stories and/or imagining them.
Do you see yourself writing more historical fiction?
I absolutely see the potential for telling stories of those brave colonists, especially the women, who settled New Mexico when it was called Nueva Espana.
We are thrilled to introduce you to our second official Las Musas launch - ANA MARIA REYES DOES NOT LIVE IN A CASTLE by Hilda Burgos. Las Musas asked Hilda about her middle grade novel out this week (Tu Books) which received stars from Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal and has been called "A Latina Little Women with a modern Washington Heights flair" by Julia Alvarez.
First, you need to know that...
Her last name may mean kings, but Ana María Reyes REALLY does not live in a castle. Rather, she's stuck in a tiny apartment with two parents (way too lovey-dovey), three sisters (way too dramatic), everyone's friends (way too often), and a piano (which she never gets to practice). And when her parents announce a new baby is coming, that means they'll have even less time for Ana María.
Pobre Ana Maria!!
Then she hears about the Eleanor School, New York City's best private academy. If Ana María can win a scholarship, she'll be able to get out of her Washington Heights neighborhood school and achieve the education she's longed for. To stand out, she'll need to nail her piano piece at the upcoming city showcase, which means she has to practice through her sisters' hijinks, the neighbors' visits, a family trip to the Dominican Republic . . . right up until the baby's birth! But some new friends and honest conversations help her figure out what truly matters, and know that she can succeed no matter what. Ana María Reyes may not be royal, but she's certain to come out on top.
What inspired you to write a character like Ana Maria?
As a child, I loved school and I loved to read. While I enjoyed reading about kids who were different from me, I also longed to connect with some characters. Not once did I read about a kid like me: bilingual, living in a small apartment with a large family, with many extended family members in another country. So, I decided to create that character myself.
The many places in this book seem like they are almost characters in the book - the not castle, the prep school, the DR… Why were these different spaces important to write?
I think we’re shaped by a lot of things, including our experiences and the places where we have those experiences. Like Ana María, I grew up in an apartment in Washington Heights. When I was ten years old, I visited the Dominican Republic for the first time, and I was surprised by how different it was from everything I had known until that point. I attended a small private school for two years in middle school and, although the school was within walking distance from my home, it seemed like a different world. I wanted Ana María to also experience some of the places that I visited, and to learn and grow from them, as I believe that I did too.
How does NYC act as a character in the story?
NYC has many different neighborhoods with people whose lives are so different from one another. Ana María complains about living in a small apartment in Washington Heights while her best friend lives in a big house in the nearby and much wealthier neighborhood of Riverdale. She and her family ride public transportation everywhere; the NYC subway system is a character in itself! And then there’s the fact that Washington Heights is a home away from home for her parents, and a place where Ana María and her sisters are surrounded by Dominican culture and the Spanish language even though they have never been outside of the US. This book would not have been the same if it had been set in a different location.
If you could go back and change one part of the story, what would it be?
This is a pretty dangerous question, because every time I read the book I made more changes, until I just had to stop looking at it! Like most writers, I’ll probably never think anything I write is perfect. Nevertheless, at this point, I wouldn’t change anything about the storyline, but I might add more details to my Dominican Republic scenes. I recently read Pablo Cartaya’s Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish, and I really liked his vivid descriptions of Puerto Rico. As I read Cartaya’s descriptions, I thought that, if I were still editing my book, I would go back and see where I could paint a clearer picture of the DR.
What does a typical day of writing look like for you?
Since I have a full time job I write when I can, and I don’t really have a typical writing day. Mostly I write on weekends, and also some evenings. I think about what I’m going to write as I do other things, like walk my dog, do laundry, cook, load the dishwasher, etc. Then, when I have gathered up enough for a scene or a chapter, I sit down and put it on paper.
What message do you hope Ana María sends her readers?
That family and friendships are more important than material possessions, and that our choices can make a big difference in our lives and the lives of others.
Do you play an instrument like Ana María? What music do you love to play or listen to?
Although I haven’t played the piano in a while, I took lessons for many years as a child, and I played mostly classical music. As I got older, I also played ragtime and jazz, which was challenging and rhythmic, and so much fun to play. I enjoy listening to many styles of music, especially Latin music, not only for its wonderful beats but also because so many Spanish language songs have beautifully poetic lyrics.
Ana María feels threatened by the expected baby sibling. Do you have siblings, and are they older, younger or both?
I have two older sisters and one younger sister. This book actually started out as a short story where three sisters worried about the possibility of getting a brother now that their mother was pregnant again. It was inspired by my experiences when I was six years old and my youngest sister was born. Now my sister insists that she’s my musa!
Here is a photo of me and my sisters celebrating my First Communion:
Sometimes authors like to put a little of themselves in their characters - did you do that with Ana Maria or any of the other characters in the book?
Yes. Ana María’s specific experiences are fictional, but she and I have a lot in common. She is the daughter of Dominican immigrants, has three sisters, is growing up in Washington Heights, and loves school. She also has a stay-at-home mom and a highly educated father. I put a little of myself in the character of Ana María’s dad, too. He is a legal services lawyer (while my dad is a scientist) and I worked for legal services as my first job out of law school.
What was the most difficult scene to write?
The opening scene. The first sentence in the book is the same first sentence I wrote in my very first draft, but just about everything else changed from that first chapter. I struggled with the opening because I wanted my first scene to be interesting and engaging so that readers would not want to put the book down. I hope I managed to do that successfully.
What scene came the easiest?
Most of the scenes that include a lot of dialogue. Once I had my characters’ personalities clear in my mind, the conversations between them seemed to flow naturally through my fingers.
Can you talk about what you’re working on next?
It’s still in a very early stage, so I can’t say too much. It is another MG book, completely unrelated to this book. My main character is also the daughter of Dominican immigrants … and, that’s all I’ll say for now.
Go out and get your copy of ANA MARIA DOES NOT LIVE IN A CASTLE today!
We are beyond excited for the very first Musa book to be out in the world. A contemporary adventure based in Maya mythology, THE STORM RUNNER centers on Zane Obispo, a young boy who is constantly made fun of for his limp and walking cane, but whose life is completely changed when a twin-engine plane crashes into a dormant volcano in his backyard and introduces a mysterious girl named Brooks. Brooks tells him that the volcano is actually a centuries-old prison for the Maya god of death, whose destiny is directly tied to Zane's.
Brooks opens his eyes to the truth: magic, monsters, and gods are real, and Zane is at the center of an ancient prophecy that could mean the destruction of the world!
Dun dun DUN!!
No work of art would be complete without its Musa: Jennifer (J.C.) Cervantes! Jen is a children’s author who has earned multiple awards and recognitions, including the New Mexico Book Award, Zia Book Award, and was named a New Voices Pick by the American Booksellers Association for her first book Tortilla Sun. A champion of the underdog and believer in magic, Jen is the perfect Musa to bring THE STORM RUNNER to life.
Without further ado here is Jen!
You are the first Latinx writer in the Rick Riordan Present’s (Disney Hyperion) series. Why is it important to you that the Meso-American pantheon be represented in this series?
The mythologies kids learn about these days are predominantly Greek and Roman and sometimes, Norse. We are a country of immense diversity with so many cultures’ mythologies that are rich and varied. I want kids with ties to Mesoamerica/Mexico to know they have a pantheon of Maya gods, Aztec gods, Toltec gods etc. with amazing tales and histories. And kids without those ties? I want them to share in the awe of these stories and myths, to experience a new world.
Which is your favorite god or goddess in this pantheon and why?
Not a fair question because there are so many to love, but I’d have to say Ixkakaw because she’s the goddess of chocolate and who doesn’t LOVE chocolate?
What was your inspiration to write a main character with a disability? What sort of research did you have to do?
When I was a girl I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. It was common to be screened at school and I can so clearly remember walking out of the nurse’s office thinking that kids could see what I believed was a “deformity.” It was a powerful feeling, that sense of being different, of not belonging. A feeling I never forgot, which is why I dedicated this book to those who don’t feel like they belong. I also remember the stories my grandfather told me about his life with polio--how his legs were too skinny to be strong, how kids made fun of him, how he longed to play sports. It was important to me that Zane’s disability not define him, that I be mindful of the visibility and invisibility of his experiences and his feeling that he didn’t belong. So, I drew on personal experiences/accounts with people/children I know. I read a lot and I also worked closely with a special education scholar who has dedicated her life to teaching and working with kids with disabilities. She read the manuscript as well to ensure I remained mindful and aware of my character and his experience in an authentic way.
Is there a character that you didn’t like to write? If so, why?
I loved writing them all. Although, the demon runners with their slimy skin, foaming mouths, curved yellow claws, and hairy-patched bodies were at times spine-chilling.
Do you have any hidden messages in The Storm Runner that fans should look out for?
I have a few Easter eggs for sure
What is your biggest hope for The Storm Runner?
That it finds the hearts that need it most.
What is your favorite sentence in The Storm Runner?
Can I have two?
A booming voice came over a loudspeaker in the ceiling: “New soul on level three. Thinks he’s Shakespeare. Only speaks in iambic pentameter and I’m getting ready to smash in his face.
Destiny comes knocking, and if you don't open the door, she will come in through the window.
What was the scariest and best part about working with your own culture?
Scariest was wanting to get it “right” and worried I’d be judged for getting it “wrong.”
Best: I connected to some wonderful childhood memories of my grandmother and family.
If we wanted to try making delicious authentic hot chocolate at home what do you recommend?
You can follow a basic recipe but for me the real trick is the cayenne pepper and vanilla :)
Are you and Rick BFFs now?
Rick is way too cool for a BFF unless of course you’re Rosie (seen below) and then he’s all over it :)
Can you tell us a little about how you were able to land your deal?
My agent sent me a well-timed email as soon as Disney sent out the Rick Riordan Presents announcement. I happened to have a story in mind that had been lingering in the vault. So, I polished the first three chapters and wrote a synopsis. After my agent submitted I thought I’d be waiting on a response forever, but we got a call the next day!
What has it been like working with Rick Riordan and his imprint RRP?
Incredibly awesome! Everyone at DH/RRP has been so genuine, down to earth, and kind. I couldn’t ask for a better more supportive team. The first time I met Rick was in NYC right before we were going to go on stage at BEA. Intimidating? Pretty much, but he was so easy going and made the entire experience so chill which was good because I was a nervous wreck.
What advice would you give other Latinx aspiring fantasy writers?
Begin with what you know, what you grew up with. Tap into the magic that is so prevalent in our cultures and let that carry you through the story. Don’t let anyone tell you that your experience doesn’t matter or isn’t ______ enough (fill in the blank) or doesn’t align with the “norm.” Read loads of books, especially diverse titles, support diverse writers. Find a mentor, go to conferences as your budget allows, join fantasy writer groups, follow blogs. Have fun, throw away the rules on those early drafts, and write the story your heart longs to tell. Be authentic. And above all honor the kids you write for. They are smart and funny and so eager to see themselves and their lives reflected in the pages of books.
If you could turn one character into a real life human to go to dinner with, which would it be and why?
Ixtab: because she dresses like a boss, and is sassy, snarky and salty all at once. Pretty much everything I’m not. Ha!
What are you working on now? What’s next?
I just finished the sequel to The Storm Runner, The Fire Keeper which comes out Sept. 2019. And there’s some other exciting news that I hope I can share soon!
What does it mean to be part of Las Musas?
I am so thrilled to be a part of a cohesive supportive group with the mission to lift one another up and that “celebrates the diversity of voice, experience, and power in our communities.” Abrazos :)
Learn more about The Storm Runner and snag your copy here!
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