Today, we're celebrating Musa Lourdes Heuer's Esme's Birthday Conga Line! Scroll on for a conversation between her and Musa Terry Catasus Jennings. But first, a little bit about her book:
Esme lives with her grandparents on the uppermost floor of the topmost best building. It’s her birthday. Mimi and Pipo gave her a beautiful guitar. But they didn’t plan a birthday party.
No problem! Esme is great at problem solving. With the help of her cat, El Toro, and a LOT of help from her neighbors in the topmost best building, Esme gets the birthday party of her dreams.
Terry Catasús Jennings: Lourdes, Congratulations on your beautiful new chapter book, Esme’s Birthday Conga Line, which came out May 10th! I want to tell you that it was a delight to read. I laughed all the way through. Esme is so much fun! Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your book?
Lourdes Heuer: Terry, thanks so much for championing this book as you have. I love that you laughed all the way through. I hope that’s how kids respond, too! Esme’s Birthday Conga Line is a transitional or early chapter book. It has short chapters perfect for read-alouds or for a beginning reader to tackle on their own, with lots of white space and those gorgeous illustrations by Marissa Valdez. It’s perfect for fans of books like Dory Fantasmagory, Princess in Black, or Saadia Faruqi’s Yasmin books.
T.J. You know, I got the Yasmin vibe. And you are so right. Esme, like Yasmin, is a perfect introduction to independent reading. I know that here I should start asking you about your journey, but I’m not going to do that. Because the minute you set eyes on Esme, what captivates you is her voice. That wonderful voice. In some ways, the voice reminds me of Ana Siquiera’s work. You both have wonderful characters who are very sure of themselves and have voices that stick with you. Tell us about that voice.
L.H. Well, that’s a very generous comparison! I love Ana’s Bella’s Recipe for Success; Bella’s relationship with her abuela is so special, and they make those delicious polvorones!
For me, voice is so tied to language, to the choices I make as a writer with language. So, for Esme I think a lot about syntax. For example, she often repeats a word or part of a word within the same sentence or within two to three sentences. Part of that is to support beginning readers. But it also adds to her personality: she demands to be heard, so she’ll say something twice if she needs to! Or she uses the phrase “I think,” at the start of sentences. She’s very determined!
T.J. Oh, yeah. She is determined! And, in a way, the way you wrote it made me think of free verse. I loved the refrain kind of things. Happy birthday, says Mimi. Happy birthday says Pipo. Meow says El Toro.
L.H. Yes, when I read it aloud, I want it to sound like poetry. I’m not a formalist—I don’t think a lot about meter, for instance. But I can hear when the rhythm is off, even if I can’t always explain why.
T.J. Okay. Now you can tell us about your journey to publication. What/who was your inspiration for the story?
L.H. Esme started out as a picture book idea that eventually called out for more space. I’m a little obsessed with place, with where stories happen. For Esme, what I knew at the start was that I wanted to tell an apartment building story, an elevator story, and that I had an image in my mind of a conga line wrapping up around a staircase. It took off from there.
T.J. You know, in a work in progress I have a conga line through Abuela’s apartment building. It is such a fun image. Now tell me, what is Esme’s backstory? I sense that Esme moved in with Mimi and Pipo because something happened to her parents, but you don’t talk about that in the book. Tell me more about that. Did you at any point have that in the book? What made you put it in/take it out?
L.H. I don’t talk about it in the book, and that was a conscious decision. I thought about young readers who would see themselves in a similar situation, not living with their parents, and I thought about this phrase that, if I’m remembering correctly, I heard for the first time in the Slate podcast Mom and Dad Are Fighting, which is “mining for pain.” I didn’t want those readers to feel compelled to explain why they too didn’t live with their parents. There was a period of time in my own life when I was 12 that I did not live with my parents, though I went to live with my older sister, not my grandparents. I think it’s safe to assume that, most times, if a child is not living with a parent, there’s some trauma there. But I don’t think kids owe us their pain narratives.
T.J. I totally get that. Let’s talk about the humor in your book. I heard Jerry Spinelli once answer a question on how he made things funny. He said something like he puts characters in a situation that’s bound to be funny. And that’s exactly what you did. We don’t know how old Esme is, we know this is her first birthday since she moved in with Mimi and Pipo, but a youngster trying to pull off a full-fledged birthday party with cake, pinata, and music and to which she invites all her friends in the building by herself? You know that is bound to be funny. And you bring it!! You do it. What Esme does to get herself a birthday party is hilarious.
L.H. I love that framework! I think humor needs exaggeration and escalation. Her physical situation, life in an apartment building, builds that escalation in. The more she works her way floor by floor, the wilder things are going to get. By the time she reaches Manny in the basement, she’s wrapped everyone else above around her finger—and she’s left a mess in the elevator for Manny to deal with!
T.J. Oh, has she ever wrapped everyone around her pinky! She has no shame, she is not afraid to demand that people help her. I had an aunt like that, maybe two. Bossy. But in the sweetest sort of way. And people do whatever she wants. I can see Esme growing up to be like my aunt Conchita for sure. She is a force of nature. What was your model for that? Are you Esme? Maybe she’s your sister. Where did you find her? Are you able to get anyone to do anything for you? Where did the other characters come from?
L.H. No, I’m afraid I don’t have Esme’s charms! Honestly Terry? I’m more like Dominguita (from your wonderful series Definitely Dominguita), always with my nose in a book. But without a doubt there are some elements in the story that come from my childhood. Until I was 8, I lived in the “uppermost floor” of what was, to me, but not in actuality, “the topmost best building.” In fact, my father still lives there. And there were three sisters that lived in an apartment on the ground floor. And we had an old, infamous elevator that often was out of service because someone would forget to properly close a door—and a super, Manolo, who was adamant none of us kids should ride the elevator without supervision, and, like Dominguita, we lived on the sixth floor! Of course, we thought of Manolo as our nemesis!!
T.J. Yay! I’m so glad you know Dominguita! I see the fact that she and Pancho live in an apartment building as a part of their personalities. And now I see you had a model for Manny, the superintendent. I love him. He dislikes drippy ceilings, dirty hallways, and stinky things. He dislikes children and most of all children in elevators. But she drags him along with her and in the end, you see his smile. That was probably the sweetest victory of all…
L.H. I have to thank my editor, Samantha Swenson, for that. I think my first go was maybe not necessarily mean but not exactly generous to Manny, either, and of course, her suggestion to take it easier on him made the ending so much better, so much sweeter!
T.J. Thank goodness for those editors that help us bring out the sweet. I have been the recipient of that and you are right, it makes all the difference in the world. One of the things that I love about this book is the community. I actually have the same thing in Dominguita. I wonder if this is a Cuban thing. How important community is to us. The adults help the kids in these off the wall endeavors without blinking an eye. It’s like it’s the way it’s supposed to be.
L.H. Terry, I have no doubt it’s a Cuban thing, a Latinx thing! It’s this idea of no te preocupes—we’re going to make this work, even if we’re making do with little. When Dominguita needs a lance, her dad comes through with a closet pole. You need armor? El Señor Fuentes from the salvage yard is going to hook you up. It’s the same thing for Esme. Oh, we need to put together a party? Don’t worry. We’ve got you.
T.J. I could not get over Marissa Valdez’s illustrations. Did she capture the way you thought that Esme should look? It is so cute. I have to tell you that next to Esme, Manny the Superintendent of the building is my favorite. Tell me more about the illustrations—that last illustration sums up the book. How was it working with Marissa?
L.H. I wish I had a photo of Manolo from when I was a kid. I know he didn’t have a mustache, but when I saw the sketches for Manny, I just about fell over. I was 8 again, walking into the building lobby and seeing him mop the floor. Marissa is a rock star. I love how she’s blended our Cuban and Mexican backgrounds. I don’t know how to adequately explain how her illustrations bowled me over. I have so many favorite ones—Esme’s floor by floor list of who she’s going to invite, the signs around the elevator Esme shamelessly ignores, the first peek we get into the Mora apartment, Baby Leon, and El Toro. Did you spot him washing the dishes wearing a pair of gloves?? All the best parts of this book come from Marissa.
T.J. El Toro is in every spread, doing something hilarious. Helping. I love him! What do you hope readers take away from Esme’s story?
L.H. Of course, the importance of community that we just spoke of. How people step in and up when you need them most. The sense of making do with few things but a lot of love. JOY! Laughter!!
T.J. Tell us what else is in the horizon for you.
L.H. There are more chapter books featuring communities in my horizon, though I can’t share much more about that for now, and I’m wrapping up edits on a series of board books Zara González Hoang and I are making together, as well as a middle grade translation project.
My debut picture book, On this Airplane, with illustrations by Pura Belpré Honoree Sara Palacios, also published by Tundra Books, comes out later this year in October.
And guess what? The second Esme! book will be out this time next year, and I can’t wait for it!
T.J. I will put that on my TBR list! Can’t wait either. Congratulations, Lourdes. I can’t wait to hear and read. And Zara! You guys will rock it together. This has been so much fun. I look forward to working with you again.
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