Las Musas wishes Alexandra Alessandri, author of Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! the happiest of Book Birthdays! Read on for Zara González Hoang’s interview and learn all about the book, New Year’s traditions, and Alexandra’s writing process!
First, a bit about the book:
Ava Gabriela is visiting her extended family in Colombia for the holidays. She’s excited to take part in family traditions such as making bunuelos, but being around all her loud relatives in an unfamiliar place makes Ava shy and quiet. How will Ava find her voice before she misses out on all the New Year’s fun?
Kirkus awarded the book a starred review, saying “This gentle family story lets readers know that shyness is nothing to worry about.”
Now on to the interview!
I loved Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! It’s such a sweet story about tradition and family, and I could totally relate to Ava Gabriela’s feelings of shyness when meeting extended family she doesn’t often see!
Aw, thank you so much! I’m so glad you liked it!!
I have some questions from Las Musas and myself, so should we dive in?
Let’s do this! ☺
Why did you decide to tell this story? What was your inspiration? Was it based on personal experience or someone you know?
I have a lot of wonderful memories about my family and our New Year’s Eve celebrations. They were always so alegre and fun, and I loved the traditions I could count on every year, as well as the food, music, and dancing. I have a very musical family, so most of our gatherings involve guitars, cajones, güiros, and other instruments. During Storystorm 2018, I realized I really wanted to capture some of these details in a story. I wanted to show parts of Colombia that might not be generally known, and I absolutely wanted to counter a lot of the stereotypes I see about Colombia and Colombians.
At that point, I didn’t know who or what the story was about, though. The character and plot wouldn’t reveal themselves until New Year’s Eve that same year. We celebrated NYE with our friends and their shy young daughter, and she reminded me so much of myself as a kid. I was—and still am!—quite shy. But, as the fireworks swirled, our friends’ daughter burst out of her shell with so much joy that I remember turning to her and exclaiming, “You found your voice!” That’s when the pieces connected between the cultural thread and the emotional one.
What was your process? How did you go from idea to book? What did you feel was the hardest part? The easiest?
Usually, when I have an idea for a story, I do a lot of brainstorming on paper. I need to write the thoughts down as they come, without worrying whether or not they’ll make it into the draft. I’ll write a lot of “what if?” and “maybe” phrases as I try to get some semblance of plot. For Feliz New Year, I had already done some brainstorming about the cultural traditions, so after the New Year’s Eve scene above, I sat down with a title—Ava Finds Her Voice—and I started listing some of the character’s traits, like her shyness and her large family, as well as fun sayings in both English and Spanish about “voice” (i.e. still small voice, use your voice, hablar hasta por los codos, ¿Se te comieron la lengua los ratones?). In my brainstorming, I knew Ava would be searching for her voice so she could join in the NYE fun, though what that searching looked like changed a little throughout the writing and revision.
I think the hardest part was deciding which details to keep and which to let go. There were so many details I wanted to include about New Year’s Eve celebrations and about partaking in big family gatherings when you’re shy, but there was only so much I could keep!
The easiest part was the actual writing. This was one of my easiest stories to write, actually, perhaps because I’d already spent a lot of time letting it simmer that when I was ready, it poured out of me.
One of the other Musas, Raquel, always loves to know how people come up with their characters’ names, so, how did you? Are they named for someone in particular? Did you just find names that had the right sound or was it something completely different?
I tend to name characters after family and friends (though that’s not always the case). Ava is our friends’ daughter’s name, and I wanted to use a combination of a more “U.S. American” name mixed with a more “traditional” name, as often happens with second+ generation Latinx Americans. Tía Nena is my mom’s nickname in our family. Sarita and Pedro are relatives’ names.
Your book depicts such wonderful New Year’s traditions! There are a bunch of things Ava Gabriela’s family did that mine does as well, but also so many new things I had never heard of, like el Año Viejo! Did you grow up with these traditions? What is your favorite New Year’s tradition?
I did grow up with these traditions! The Año Viejo was one of my favorite as a kid, though back then, it was stuffed with newspapers or hay and the adults burned it at midnight. When I got older, the tradition evolved to make this more kid friendly. We started making them out of balloons so the kids could have a more active role in bringing in the new year. We also did the grapes, celebrated with music and dancing, and ate traditional foods! Most of all, New Year’s was a time for being with family. I loved those celebrations.
Aside from the Año Viejo, one tradition I loved that didn’t make it into the book was that of walking around the neighborhood at the stroke of midnight with luggage. The goal: To have a well-traveled year! I didn’t travel a lot as a kid because we didn’t have the means for it, so I always dreamed that making that trip around the neighborhood with my Hello Kitty luggage would bring a trip in the new year.
The other theme in your book is overcoming shyness, is this something that you dealt with as a child? Do you have any tips for children who feel shy at times?
Oh yes! I’m still shy, but as a kid, I was really shy, especially in new circumstances and among new people. I was also naturally curious so I guess the two balanced each other out. I think the biggest advice I have is what Ava’s Mamá tells her, “There’s nothing wrong with being shy. When you’re ready, your voice will come out and play.” For Ava, part of overcoming her shyness involves engaging one-on-one with her family doing things she loves. This is necessary for her to start feeling more comfortable in this new environment. And that’s okay.
Ok just a few final questions, first, a fun one! As an Illustrator, I always know what the illustrations will look like, but what is it like as an author to send your manuscript away and have it come back illustrated? What was your first reaction when you saw Addy’s beautiful art?
I was blown away by Addy’s art. I absolutely loved it!! All this time Ava and her family had lived in my head, and when I saw the first sketches and spreads, I wanted to cry with joy. Addy brought them life and captured the heart of the story and the setting in such a beautiful and colorful way. Ava is adorable (in fact, all the characters are!). The illustrations of the finca, too, are some of my favorite. She really captured the feel of a finca in the Colombian Andes, as well as the celebratory mood of the story.
And now for a slightly more serious question, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?
In many ways, Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! is an ode to my culture and to shy kids everywhere. I hope readers take away that it’s okay to be shy, it’s okay to let your voice come out and play on its own terms. I also want Colombian kids to see themselves on these pages—I know I still get so excited when I find my culture in books here in the U.S., so I want them to know they matter. And, to those who aren’t Colombian, I want them to see the beauty of Colombian culture that is separate from all the negative stereotypes out there.
And finally, what’s next? Are you working on anything now that you can share?
My second book, Isabel and Her Colores Go to School, is set to release fall 2021 from Sleeping Bear Press as a bilingual picture book, and it’s being illustrated by Courtney Dawson. It’s about a little girl who’s starting school but who doesn’t speak English and who has to find creative ways to bridge the language barrier. It’s also loosely based on my experiences of starting kindergarten in New York while speaking only Spanish.
Buy Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriel!
About Alexandra Alessandri:
Alexandra Peñaloza Alessandri is a Colombian-American poet, professor, and children's author. She received her BA and MA degrees in English from Florida International University and a Certificate of Fiction from UCLA Extension. Her poetry has appeared in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, YARN, and Atlanta Review, while her picture books FELIZ NEW YEAR, AVA GABRIELA! (Albert Whitman) and ISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL (Sleeping Bear Press) are forthcoming in 2020 and 2021, respectively. When not writing or teaching, Alexandra spends her time daydreaming, playing the piano, and planning the next great adventure with her family. She lives in Florida with her husband, son, and hairless pup, dreaming of Colombia.
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