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.
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