To celebrate the book birthday of Alexandra Alessandri's Isabel and Her Colores Go to School, we're sharing this delightful interview between Musas Alexandra Alessandri and Terry Catasús Jennings. Scroll on to learn more about this adorable picture book!
Terry: Alexandra, I have to tell you, this brought back so many memories. I was twelve when I first came to the United States. But I was just like Isabel—drowning in the strange words that surrounded me. Can you tell us about your book?
Alexandra: Aw, I’m so glad it resonated with you, though I’m sorry you experienced this, too. Isabel and Her Colores Go to School is about a little girl who’s starting school, but while she’s excited about it, she’s also really nervous because she doesn’t speak English, which sounds strange to her. Isabel is also artistic and processes everything through color, and it’s this trait that ultimately allows her to bridge the language divide.
Terry: Your Colombian identity is very present in your writing, whether it’s your poems or your picture books. How has your Colombian identity shaped your writing?
Alexandra: My Colombian identity is definitely a huge part of my writing. I was born and raised in the U.S. in a Spanish-only household and with parents who made it very clear to me that I was 100% Colombian. But growing up straddling both cultures comes with a lot of figuring out how to be both and questioning whether you’re Colombian or American enough. When my dad passed away in 2008, I felt this sudden void. I mean, my mom is blessedly still alive and I still have this connection to Colombia through her and her side, but the loss of my dad sparked this intimate desire to really know Colombia and where/how I fit into the equation. I think this led naturally to writing as a way of reflecting and understanding what it mean to be Colombian and American, and how different this experience is between my mom, myself and my son. This spilled over into my poetry and my children’s books.
Terry: The idea of Isabel and Her Colores reminds me of Wassili Kandinski. He connected his art to sound. What was the inspiration for Isabel and Her Colores? When/how was the idea born?
Alexandra: Thank you for sharing this artist with me—I wasn’t familiar with Wassili Kandinski! The idea for the main plot of Isabel was based on my own experience of starting school without knowing English. I literally got lost in school because I didn’t understand the teacher. In terms of the colors, though, that came from a brainstorming session as I asked myself, What would English sound like to Isabel? What about Spanish? What about when both are spoken at the same time? When we hear sounds, it’s often easy to conjure up images (at least for me!), so I started playing around with this concept. During revision, I strengthened the connection, making it both literal and figurative. And, since Isabel is artistic, it made sense to me that she would process language and emotion through color.
Terry: How/why did you assign the colors that you did? I must say that I agree with the colors of the warmer countries being bright, warm colors, but I’d be interested in knowing what made you choose each of the colors.
Alexandra: In my head, I connected the colors to memories, though Isabel’s memories aren’t explicit on the page. When she hears Spanish, she hears the sounds of home, which then elicit memories of the green of her mountains, the yellows, pinks, and purples of Mami’s flowers, the brilliant turquoise of rivers. When she hears English, she hears something foreign and different, something that elicits fear, so the stormy blues and whites, with hints of gray, make sense to me.
Terry: Obviously, you were trying to portray the scary situation that young people who know no English face when they first go to school in the United States. For older kids who come from another country, they are thrown into the shark tank without a lot of preambles. Sarah, a possible friend, reaches out to Isabel. That was a great metaphor for what we all have to do to welcome the immigrant. It’s such a gentle life lesson. Was there someone who extended their hand to you?
Alexandra: It’s really scary to be thrown into a room when you can’t understand those around you. You feel lost and alone, and yes, I wanted to capture that but also how a simple act of kindness—including someone and extending a welcoming hand—can make all the difference of the world. For me, when I got lost in the hallways of my school, a teacher found me and extended compassion. She soothed me and helped me find my way back to my teacher and classmates.
Terry: What do you love about Isabel? How is she like Alexandra? Do you think in colors?
Is there a person named Isabel in your life?
Alexandra: I love how artistic she is! I’m not an artist but I do love color and art. I’m very visual. And, while I don’t think in colors, I do have a slight obsession with paint chips and all the fantastic names for the different shades.
My great-aunt was named Isabel, and had I ever had a daughter, she would’ve been named Isabella. In a way, I guess Isabel is the daughter I never had!
Terry: Can you talk about Courtney Dawson’s illustrations? Did you cry for joy when you saw your illustrations?
Alexandra: I’m obsessed with Courtney’s illustrations! They’re so gorgeous and vivid and colorful. I love her vision for the story, the way she captured the characters’ essence. Her art surpassed my expectations. I particularly loved the way she captured Isabel’s connection to color throughout the pages. I absolutely cried for joy!
Terry: I want to give a nod to “Al mal tiempo buena cara.” That saying was often repeated in my home in Cuba. That is one way in which the Spanish heritage joins Latinx countries and peoples. But still we are not a monolith. Can you speak to how you feel about that?
Alexandra: We are absolutely not a monolith! While language and/or location connect us, and there are absolutely similarities in our shared experience, our collective story has many threads and each country and culture has its unique traits. And, even within one country, people will have different ways of living out that reality. Add to that living in the diaspora, generational differences, and other factors, and you have a prism of experiences, and I’d love to see more stories that truly capture this diversity.
Terry: There were so many beautiful, and poetic phrases. Did you ever consider writing Isabel as a poem?
Soft and amber like a ripened mango.
Alexandra: Aw, thank you. Poetry is my first language, and poetic elements tend to bleed into my prose. I didn’t consider writing Isabel as a poem, perhaps because that didn’t feel true to her and the story.
Terry: Alexandra, thank you for sharing all your thoughts with us. I just have one question left. How is your piano playing?
Alexandra: Thank you so much for having me—these were such great questions! And ha! My piano playing is still very much rusty, but it’s okay. My son is helping me where I struggle!
Buy Isabel and Her Colores Go to School today!
Alexandra Peñaloza Alessandri is a Colombian American poet, children’s author, and Associate Professor of English at Broward College. She received her BA and MA degrees in English from Florida International University, as well as a Certificate of Fiction from UCLA Extension. Her poetry has appeared in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, YARN, and Atlanta Review, where her poem “Inheritance” was a Finalist in the 2017 International Poetry Competition. She is the author of Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! (Albert Whitman, Oct. 2020) and Isabel and Her Colores Go to School (Sleeping Bear Press, Fall 2021).
Alexandra is represented by Deborah Warren of East West Literary Agency. When not writing or teaching, Alexandra spends her time daydreaming, relearning 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.
On September 11, 1961, Terry Catasús Jennings landed in the United States after a short flight from Cuba. On September 12th, she was enrolled in seventh grade in an American school. Her family, including her father who had been jailed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, was now in a free country. The only catch for twelve-year-old Terry was that she could count in English and recite the days of the week and the months of the year, but not much more. Often being the only Cuban in her school—even through college—Terry knows what it’s like to be the new kid on the block. She is delighted to have the opportunity, with Definitely Dominguita, to portray a typical child of immigrants—no different than her peers—other than she loves the classics (like Jennings did as a child) and thinks Cuban food rules. You can find Terry at terrycjennings.com
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