Anika Aldamuy Denise: NoNieqa! You know how hyped I am about YOUR MAMA. I’m so happy it’s out in the world today and excited to talk to you about it!
NoNieqa Ramos: Anika! Faced-out in our family children’s library are the English and Spanish translations of A GIRL NAMED ROSITA THE STORY OF RITA MORENO: ACTOR, SINGER, DANCER, TRAILBLAZER! interspersed with Pura Belpré Honor Book PLANTING STORIES: THE LIFE OF LIBRARIAN AND STORYTELLER STPURA BELPRÉ.
Your masterful work is one key way I transmit Latinx history to my children and recover it for myself. Much love to MONSTER TRUCKS because it’s so clever and funny--and because you widen the lane--giving Latinx writers permission to write humor--and anything else they want. Because you do it like a Boss.
Aw, thank you for the kind words. That shelf is a place of honor. I love all the books on it. And I love how Rosita is kickin’ it with Frida!
Okay, so let’s get to it. I want to start with your gorgeous poetry. Whenever I read lyrical picture books, I’m curious to know if they poured out onto the page fully formed or if the story took shape over time, with revision. Tell us how this book showed up for you.
First let dry my eye sweat… ¡Mil gracias, Anika!
I tell you what. Who knew poetry could be such a battle. Out of the 14 or so types of poems we typically teach children—acrostic poems, cinquains, ballads etc.—I chose the most unconventional.
I know if I wrote in standard rhyme, my writing life would be easier. Writing in rhythmic verse, a form of free verse, has been a challenge to master and a challenge to bring forth in an industry whose origins are deeply rooted in British Mother Goose rhyme and Dick and Jane.
So why not just write with a standard rhyme scheme and meter? Does the crackling energy of the city in summer operate with a standard rhyme and meter? Does the beautiful chaos of family operate in iambic pentameter? Maybe to some. But not to my mind.
If we are to truly have diversity, diversity must come in representation, inclusion, empowerment—and—in voice and structure. There is a place for standard rhyme. My shelves radiate with rhyming picture books by BIPOC master creators. What I assert is there is also a place for free verse in picture books. Free verse is a language kids speak fluently. I like to think of it as the jazz of poetry.
Let me bring it back.
I drafted YOUR MAMA in a week. Make no mistake, it took YEARS of toiling over my craft to get to the point where I could spin these rhymes. Previous unpublished titles of mine, which include BAAAD SHEEP and I kid you not, TATTLE SNAKE shall forever remain in a drawer. Hold up, Tattle SNAKE ™. That idea is still kinda cute.
But I got rerouted off my path during the submissions process. An editor asked for a revision with a traditional narrative arc, and I tried to jump through that hoop. I am glad I tripped over it. Because YOUR MAMA was meant to be exactly what it is—a lyrical ode, a Valentine.
There’s a delicate balance between revision and sticking with your vision. It’s of the upmost importance to have your work in the right editor’s hands. Erika, Kwame, and I were a match!
They helped me clear my throat—excavate, declutter, polish—and hit the right notes.
I feel that so hard. I think it’s really helpful for writers just starting out to hear you talk about striking that balance. Let’s pivot to the book’s clever concept. Yo’ mama jokes are a fixed memory in the urban schoolyard of my childhood, but I was always too shy to throw down. How about you? Was your yo’ mama game strong?
In my family, there were rules carved in Old Testament stone. Such as “Thou shall not let thy sister get whooped.” So that’s why, Missy, I had to push you off your roller skates and we aren’t friends no more.
The other rule chiseled way down deep was this. We don’t walk away from a fight. I almost got jumped, and yes, my papi told me to turn right back around and go deal with it when I came barreling into the house. The last rule: Thou shalt not instigate. And instigate I did with, N. Fiorentino.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent*
Back then I must have weighed 80 pounds and that counted ten pounds of hair and five pounds of Dep gel. I was second in a size order line of about thirty kids. Be that as it may, I started something. Between morning line up and recess the smack I talked reached up and down the line and back and most importantly reached the ears of H. Jackson.
H. Jackson arranged the fight across the street from the dime store where you could buy teeth-cracking Bazooka gums with comics in them. My girl Farrah passed out Cheez Doodles while everybody took sides. The biggest fear I had was not my big mouth—which was bigger than my hair—but PAPI. I could not throw the first punch. Because that broke the rules.
Ding! Instead of a fist, I swung with therapy-inducing disses and took N. Fiorentino down in two rounds. H. Jackson laughed but told me she would have knocked me out if I had talked like that to her. Either way, I left victorious and Papi (and his cinturón) was none the wiser at my bad behavior. Yo’ Mama saved N. Fiorentino’s skin and mine.
Right, because had you used fists, not words, you woulda got yourself whooped TWICE, lol! Seriously, though, it’s so powerful how you flipped that familiar joke into a loving affirmation for mamas. Did you know right away you had something special? And was Versify the first home you thought of for it?
Coming up with idea for YOUR MAMA was a milestone in craft. I had pushed myself. We’re talking studying 100’s of picture books. Spending hours in deep contemplation until that synapse fired.
I remember exactly where I was standing when the idea came to me BOOM! Writing the words what if and Yo’ Mama on the blackboard.
I remember when I saw the Tweet that Kwame Alexander was starting a new imprint and that it was open for submissions. I thought this is YOUR MAMA’s home. Talk about shooting your shot. A Yo’ Mama picture book—albeit flipped into a loving affirmation. And written in rhythmic verse? I emailed my agent in milliseconds. Two weeks after the submission, I got the call.
Now I get the honor and privilege of shouting out powerful BIPOC mamas and all mamas. And talking to you, Anika.
When I read that you grew up raised by your dad, godmother, tías, and other strong single women in your life—YOUR MAMA felt all the more poignant. Can you talk a little bit about writing this book from a place of growing up without your mama—but with a village of mamas?
It’s funny, but it never occurred to me how strange this writing journey would be. From my childhood, I recall adults saying in quiet whispers, “Their mom abandoned them.” I have learned to be a mama from the village of Mamas who stayed. I have also come to understand and forgive what prevented my biological mother from being a parent.
YOUR MAMA is an embodiment of the sweetness, strength—forgiveness—humor, and wealth of love I received from my dad, godmother, tías, and other strong single women in my life—who somehow in the midst of pursuing love, degrees, art, and careers, managed to make the time for me.
Okay, I’m full-on crying now. That’s beautiful. Do you have a favorite passage in the book? (I have several but you go first.)
Your mama’s so rich.
She’s rollin in it.
She got friends
At work, at church,
In the hood.
Life is good.
She got cousins by the dozens,
hermanos in droves.
You, her gold--
My Papi used to call my sister and me his gold. Te amo, Papi. Now to get him to stop workin’ for a minute, and read my book, lol.
I honestly love every page and I don’t want to give too much away—but this part in particular made me feel seen as a mama…
Sometimes, your mama’s cray cray. But she’s gonna be OK.
She can get her hair done another day. I mean, it’s been years
since she’s gone to the bathroom on her own
or heard anything anybody’s saying on the phone.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have couches that weren’t trampolines? Hey, a mama can dream.
(But she wouldn’t change a thing.)
So we’ve been talking awhile and I haven’t yet mentioned Jacqueline Alcántara’s incredible illustrations. I can’t imagine a better fit for the fire and flavor of your words. How did you feel when you first saw Jackie’s artwork for the book?
I remember standing in a children’s toy store and seeing Jackie’s work in the picture book THE FIELD. I sent the thought out into the universe… One day…
Jackie is a genius.
When I saw her illustrations for YOUR MAMA, think the lighting of Rockefeller Center. That’s how much she lit me up. Her work invokes the spirit, the verve, the essence, and the passion of my words.
I wasn’t joking about getting a tattoo of one of the illustrations.
You should do it! Temporary tattoos for kids would be fun book swag, too. Speaking of that, it’s not easy (I know!) to write a picture book that appeals equally to kids and adults. Were you thinking about both audiences as you wrote it?
So many BIPOC parents are in deep recovery because of the lack of representation. So when I wrote YOUR MAMA, BEAUTY WOKE, and HAIR STORY I did have them in mind. Storytime is a sacred event in our house. With YOUR MAMA, I imagined a Mama cradling her kiddo in her arms and both of them turning the pages of the book and the pages of memory, reflecting on all of their magical moments.
I also had empathy in mind. BIPOC mamas especially, and all Mamas are human and divine. The goddess part breathes life and energy into everything and the human part sometimes needs to take a dang minute and take a deep breath. I hope YOUR MAMA is a little bit of self-care, and makes mamas feel seen and revered.
It is self-care! Like I could seriously read it out loud to myself each morning as an affirmation. I know the book is just out, but have others had the same emotional reaction? What has been the feedback from readers so far? Anything surprise you?
Because I have always been considered an “experimental writer” or a “unique voice,” reception of my work can vary wildly. So far, the reception of YOUR MAMA has been a lot of love, which is medicinal, ‘specially after this past year.
I hear that. YOUR MAMA marks your picture book debut. How has the experience of writing and launching a picture book differed from your YA releases?
Marketing collectives now abound, but that was not the case when I started. When THE DISTURBED GIRL’S DICTIONARY launched I didn’t even know what a cover reveal or an unboxing video or any of that was. Author Emma Otheguy’s invitation to join Las Musas was a game changer. I found life-time amigx and familia there too. Abrazos fuertes, Emma, Aida, Mia, Alex, Terry! ...
With the announcement of my picture book, I was invited by author Kirsten Larson to join The Soaring 20s and later invited by author Anitra Schulte to join PBTroupe 21; I cannot imagine navigating this volatile field without their insight, energy, support, and friendship.
Whenever I begin a new book I ask myself, who am I writing for? The answer is kids, claro, but often I’m writing for my younger self or for someone specific in my life or memory. Who did you write YOUR MAMA for?
Historically, white supremacy has strived to assimilate and colonize BIPOC kids to strip away children's pride in themselves, their cultures, their families, and their parents. I wrote YOUR MAMA as a push back and a clap back.
Personally, I also wrote it for all those kids out there who are being raised by mamas who are not their biological parents. Mamas may be biological, may not. But my kids and I always joke, a mama is 100 percent the one who wiped your culo for at least five years, carried you in their arms 24/7 for five months because you were too small for one of those pouches and you would not sleep without skin-to-skin, carried you to the emergency room in the middle of the night when daddy was out of town because THAT’S WHEN EVERYTHING goes down. I digress. You feel me?
I do. Many of the women who mothered me, who were there in the clutch, were not related biologically to me. And while I was raised with my mama for as long as God was good enough to let me have her—I lost her somewhat early. The village of mamas who flew to my side, who lifted me up, words cannot express the love I have for them. But your book provides the words. That’s why it’s so dope.
And now my eyes are leaking again. (*wipes tears* *gets self together*) Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on next?
I am working on a gender queer fairytale retelling where the entire family pitches in to get my MC to the Boogie Down Dance Contest. I can’t wait to see where this book lands.
We can’t wait either! Is there anything that I didn’t ask but readers need to know about this book or any upcoming books?
Yes! ESCUCHEN Educators: Jackie and I have a free beautiful activity and educator guide for you! Check it out on our websites www.nonieqa.com and www.jacquelinealcantara.com.
And please let me say, Anika, talking with you was 100 percent a star in my writer’s sky.
It’s a big bright sky and you are shining in it for all of us, NoNieqa. Mil gracias for chatting with me today—and for this joyful book that is a gift to kids and mamas everywhere!
Order YOUR MAMA today!
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