Mariana Ríos: It’s my pleasure to welcome Jenny Lacika to our Las Musas Blog to celebrate the book birthday of “Again, Essie?”, a picture book written by Jenny, illustrated by Teresa Martínez and published by Charlesbridge.
In this picture book, Rafael wants to protect his toys from his little sister, Essie. Gathering materials from around the house, he builds a wall tall enough and wide enough to keep her out. But will it be strong enough? And what does Essie really want? A playful exploration of physical space and geometry, featuring Chicanx characters and a glossary of Spanish words.
Part of the Storytelling Math series that celebrates children using math in their daily adventures as they play, build, and discover the world around them. Joyful stories and hands-on activities make it easy for kids and their grown-ups to explore everyday math together. Developed in collaboration with math experts at STEM education nonprofit TERC, under a grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation.
M.R. Jenny, congratulations on the release of your book! How exciting! I’m so happy to have the chance to interview you. How do you feel about it finally getting to the shelves?
Jenny Lacika: Thank you so much Mariana! I am so excited about this book finally being available to readers. I think Teresa Martínez did such an incredible job creating images, and a cover in particular, that draw people in and make them want to read. I feel incredibly lucky that she brought such joy and energy to my words and I can’t wait to share it with kids.
I am also excited to read your debut, SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS, releasing in October, because it addresses some of the same themes of perseverance, creativity, and social relationships! I think it’s so important to use stories together so kids can see themes from different perspectives and in different contexts to show they are relatable more broadly.
M.R. Thanks so much! I love what you say about using stories together so kids see the same themes from different perspectives. Jenny, can you tell us a bit about you as an author? When did you realize you wanted to write for children?
J.L. I really came to writing accidentally. I was always hesitant to share my creative ideas as a child and even as a young adult, because I was unsure of how they would be received. Like many of us, I didn’t grow up reading a lot of stories that I saw my whole self in, so writing stories like that didn’t immediately occur to me. When I started having cognitive challenges associated with multiple sclerosis, I took up writing as a brain exercise. I started in 2014, taking classes and attending critique groups, but I didn’t seriously consider pursuing publication until the call for submissions for the Storytelling Math series in 2018. I loved that they were asking for stories that combined elements that were very important to me, culture and math. Prior to that, I was trying to write stories that didn’t feel 100% authentic to me. The call for submissions opened up a floodgate of ideas, and I started writing about things that really mattered to me. Much of my work now explores STEM education, disability, and Chicanx culture and history.
M.R. What an inspiring journey, Jenny. I can totally understand what you mean about the importance of writing stories that feel authentic, I’m glad you finally got that chance. How has your writing career been so far?
J.L. I feel like I was really early in my writing journey when this book was acquired by Charlesbridge. I was just starting to figure out what I had to say. The process of publishing this book really helped to shape how I see my writing and why I keep doing it. AGAIN, ESSIE? was not the first story I submitted to the Storytelling Math series though. I sent two stories in when I saw the initial call, but neither were right for the series. A second call for submissions went out in 2019. Luckily I had lots of new ideas and I was able to work with the editors on a couple of them.
After I received an offer on AGAIN, ESSIE?, I started querying agents in earnest, eventually finding a match in Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Together we have found homes for six more picture books, including one that grew from one of those original Storytelling Math submissions.
I feel like I am learning so much all the time and am grateful to every writer who has taken the time to help me along the way. It’s not an easy business but having support like the Las Musas community and authors who seek to lift others up, like Meg Medina, makes it a lot easier.
M.R. Wow! Six more picture books coming soon, that’s incredible! Congratulations! I agree with what you say about the value of the support in the writing community and, specifically Las Musas. It definitely makes the journey less lonely and more rewarding. Jenny, can you share how did you get the idea for Again, Essie?
J.L. In this book, I wanted to capture the kind of sibling relationship my brothers and I had, and my kids have with each other. There’s a constant push and pull of wanting to be together and wanting to be left alone. I’m a middle child, so I have been on both sides of the sibling equation, sometimes at the same time.
One reason I love this series and wanted to be a part of it is that it showcases math in the everyday. The children’s museum here has a giant sign of an Albert Einstein quote, “El juego es la forma más elevada de investigación.” It was important to have the math be fun. I also wanted to explore math in an organic way, free of any special materials. My youngest was very interested in building with blocks at the time, so I wanted to incorporate that. I very intentionally had Rafael find objects from around the house to build with, so it could be accessible to almost anyone. I wanted to highlight the rasquache attitude of resourcefulness and adaptability that many kids understand naturally.
I was lucky that at the time I was drafting this story, my kids were close to the age of the target audience, so I got to present them with some materials and see what kinds of challenges Rafael might encounter, and what kind of creative thinking he might use. The oversized materials really engaged them in the mathematical thinking, and they extended their play by finding new materials around the house.
M.R. I agree that our own kids can be such a great source of inspiration four our writing, that’s been my case too. How did you come up with your characters’ names and personalities?
J.L. Essie is actually short for Esperanza because she uses her joy and enthusiasm to literally break through the barriers keeping her from exploring with her brother. It is my hope that kids see themselves as capable of breaking through those barriers that others construct, in math and beyond.
As a Latina interested in STEM, I was fortunate that my dad worked as an engineer when I was young. In my house, it was never a question of if I was capable. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case at school, even with educators. I had to push past others’ expectations. So Essie embodies that determination.
Rafael is Essie’s foil, serious and so focused on his goal that he misses the bigger picture.
One of the express goals of this series is to give readers an inclusive vision of mathematical thinkers, and I think that really works in two ways. One, as a way for readers to see themselves as mathematical thinkers, and two, as a way for readers to see others as mathematical thinkers. So Essie and Rafael are kind of the two sides of my own experience.
M.R. Thank you for sharing that! I love how your characters are two sides of your own experience. How special! Can you explain what was the process for writing your book?
J.L. The process of writing this book was a slightly different process than most of my books. I had submitted other stories to the series that ultimately weren’t the right fit, but I had the opportunity to get to know the editors and felt comfortable bouncing some new ideas off of them when the second call for submissions went out. They actually encouraged writers to submit early to receive feedback. I sent them several stories and they let me know that the mathematical concepts in this story were intriguing and gave me some notes. We worked on several revisions before they made an offer, and then more edits after the contract was signed. I feel really fortunate that this book was such a collaborative effort and I am grateful they were willing to put in so much time with me because I learned so much about writing and the business in general.
There were two editors working on this story: Alyssa Mito Pusey, an editor from Charlesbridge, who helped me create an engaging, satisfying story; and Marlene Kliman, an editor from TERC, to make sure the math aspects are helpful and clear in the context of the story. Most of the initial work was on creating a story framework to carry the math. Story definitely came first.
I first submitted the story in April 2019, so the whole process took about three years.
M.R. Jenny, that’s so interesting! You must have learned a lot from working with two editors. Publishing a book is truly a collaborative team effort in many ways. I’d like to ask you now about the usage of some Spanish words in your book.
J.L. The decision to add Spanish was one I actually struggled with a little. Even though I grew up with tons of environmental exposure, I didn’t speak Spanish at home.
The reason I thought it was important to include at least a little is the same reason my own Spanish is limited. When my Grandmother started school, she experienced abuse from educators before she learned English. She didn’t want my mother to experience the same discrimination she endured as a child, so she spoke English at home.
The power structures that have existed have told us that Spanish is incongruous with academia. I felt it was important to show these kids using logic and math and also Spanish. They are not mutually exclusive. I wanted my characters to have both.
M.R. I definitely think the addition of Spanish gives another layer to your book. How did you come up with the title?
J.L. Again, Essie? is a phrase that repeats several times in the text, and eventually shifts meaning, so it seemed a natural fit for the title. I also thought back to when my kids were toddlers and we would read the same book over and over, “again,” and I thought it was funny to plant that seed in the title. I hope my readers will ask for Essie again and again.
M.R. Repetition in picture books can be a powerful element and I think it works perfectly in your story. Regarding the illustrations, were you involved in the process in any way? Do you have a favorite one?
J.L. I think this story was unusual because the math relies heavily on the illustrations. While I don’t think I included any art notes, I did include reference photos of each of the configurations of objects that I was envisioning. I didn’t have any communication with Teresa, but she took the text and really transformed it beautifully, adding so much emotion and movement to my words and creating visual side narratives, like with the pet cat and the family. The text is fairly simple, so having that emotion and humor in the images is so essential for engaging readers.
I love every image with Essie and Rafael together because they really show the relationship between these two kids, but I think my favorite illustration is the final one in the book. Every expression Essie has is full of joy, but in the end Rafael finally shares in that joy.
But I also love the little details that follow through, like the cat!
M.R. That’s such a nice illustration! I agree that seeing Rafael sharing the joy here was really meaningful in the story. And how interesting what you mentioned about you providing reference photos for the arrangements of objects. Meeting the characters for the first time in the color cover is such a special moment for picture book authors. How was it for you?
J.L. It was amazing! Teresa’s art is so jubilant and colorful. Essie is such a bundle of energy and Rafael is so focused and determined. Teresa amped up the humor and connection between the two kid characters and created this loving, tight-knit family. She also has an amazing ability to show Rafael working with all these different objects without it feeling overwhelming or repetitive. She is incredibly talented. I can’t wait to see her book with Cynthia Harmony, MI CIUDAD SINGS, coming in June!
M.R. Jenny what would you say is your favorite part of your story and the most important take away your want little readers to remember?
J.L. My favorite part is the ending when the meaning of “Again, Essie” shifts and the kids are working together and having fun. Rafael is diverted from his initial goal when he realizes what Essie really wants. I am hyper aware of the fact that once the book is published, the reader is the final collaborator. My biggest hope is that they take this story and make it their own. I hope they see that math is everywhere and get excited to explore. I also want them to see that there is more than one way to solve a problem, and it’s okay to make mistakes.
M.R. That’s such a valuable getaway! Finally, what comes next for Jenny Lacika?
J.L. I am so excited that the Spanish bilingual edition of AGAIN, ESSIE? will come out in October.
I am also thrilled about my next announced project coming in 2024, Take Pride in the Ride, a picture book anthem celebrating lowriders and the cultural importance they hold in Chicano communities, with Nani Chacon. I am really interested in trying new things and stretching myself so my upcoming projects are a mix of poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, and I am starting to try to branch out into different age categories.
M.R. Jenny, thanks so much for your time and for sharing about yourself and your book in such a detailed, transparent, and interesting way. I wish you the very best with Again, Essie? and all your future projects.
Buy Again, Ezzie? today!
Jenny Lacika is a children’s writer from Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a Chicana, MIT grad, chronically ill, mother of two, her work often explores themes relating to STEM education, disability, and Chicanx culture and history. She is the author of AGAIN, ESSIE? and six forthcoming books including TAKE PRIDE IN THE RIDE (Atheneum, 2024).
Mariana Ríos Ramírez is a Mexican picture book author living in South Carolina with her husband, two kids and a Chihuahua mix dog named Rogers. Before becoming a kidlit writer, Mariana was a high school teacher and co-owned an online business. Her debut book, Santiago’s Dinosaurios, illustrated by Udayana Lugo, will be published by Albert Whitman in October 2022. Besides writing, Mariana enjoys singing, traveling and watching k-dramas. Three things she absolutely loves are dogs, flowers and Chai Lattes.
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