Happy Book Birthday to Terry Catasús Jennings’ The Little House of Hope / La casita de esperanza!
Today, we're celebrating Musa Terry Catasús Jenning's The Little House of Hope / La casita de esperanza. To turn a shabby little house into a welcoming home, all it takes is a big-hearted family eager to help others. . . and a little hope. La casita offers a home for those who don’t have anywhere to go. It’s a safe place in a new land, and Esperanza is always the first to welcome them. An inspiring, semi-autobiographical story of how immigrants can help each other find their footing in a new country, accompanied by the rich and vivid illustrations of award-winning artist Raúl Colón.
“It was a little house. Una casita . . .
This beautiful picture book is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection and Kirkus Reviews describes it as reflecting “the stories of many a refugee family and humanizes a group of people often othered. In an age-appropriate way, it touches on the complicated reasons people leave their homes.”
Gloria Amescua: Terry, I’m so happy to be interviewing you about your latest book, which I know must be very close to your heart.
I’m always interested in author’s inspirations for their books. In your author’s note you mention that your family lived in a casita where three families lived together, twelve during the week and fourteen when your uncle’s sons came to stay with him. How much of the details or actions of your story about immigrant families living together came from your actual experience and what is additional?
Terry Jennings: Gloria, most of those details did come from my own experience, but you’re right, some things are changed to make a better story. When we came to the United States, we had nothing. My uncle’s family was already here, and they opened up their house to us. My aunt’s brother, his wife and baby lived in the garage, and, when we came, I bunked with my two cousins, Rita and Tilly and my parents and three-year old brother slept on the pullout couch. So, they were the ones that opened up their house to us, and we were all family who lived in that little house. To be honest, I don’t know where the furniture in their house came from, but when my family—Papi, Mami and my brother Tony rented our own home, we did have furniture from the church basement. Heck, we had pots and pans and dishes too. We couldn’t have made it without help. And absolutely, I decorated my room with collages. It’s something I continued to do, even in college.
G.A. We also had furniture, books, and more that our neighbors gave us. It’s wonderful when others see you have a need and give from their hearts. I also love collages and have made some as well, mainly to express what I care about and also for goal setting.
Did you originally have a Mexican immigrant family in the story or did you decide to widen the scope of where the immigrants came from?
T.J. The first few versions of the book had only family living in the house, but Neal Porter, my editor, and I felt that it was important that we show more than the Cuban immigrant experience, and I am so happy we did that. It allowed us to show, that regardless of where you come from, you are still human. You have the same hopes, dreams, and needs. And a little helping hand meeting those needs is what makes all the difference in the world.
G.A. I’m really happy you both made that decision. It enriches the experience of the story.
You also mention that part of the reason you wrote this story stems from anger, but also with pride. Will you explain how these feelings came about and why you decided this was one way to deal with it? Why was it important to you to write this book?
T.J. Wow. That was a hard day, but a positive day. A realtor friend told me he would never rent to “Mexicans.” They always lived four families to a house and trashed the property. I stewed and stewed over that comment. He knew I was Cuban. How could he say that? How blind was he to what those people were actually going through? At first, I was just thinking about “them” but at some point, the light bulb went off. Wait! My family was one of those families! We only lived three people to a house, but still. And we all eventually became citizens and we never trashed a house. It brought back so many memories. And I felt that I needed to write about it. You’re right, I had to deal with it. I had to get it off my chest. But, more importantly, I wanted to set the record straight. Most immigrants that come to the US do so because it’s a last resort. My father would have been killed if we had stayed in Cuba. That’s why his brother had come before him. Life had become impossible. And we would have lost all our freedoms, especially the one to think for ourselves, if we had continued to live under Castro. The more I think about it, in all my books, Esperanza, Dominguita, Pauli Murray, I strive to show that we are all human. I wish I could find a catchy phrase for that, but that’s what’s important to me. For persons to be seen for who they are, what contributions they have made, not where they came from or the color of their skin. I bet this resonates with you, I believe your Child of the Flower-Song People is very much in that vein. It is beautiful.
G.A. Thank you, Terry. The Little House of Hope really does resonate. I do think we’re both trying to show the humanity of all people, to have them be seen and respected.
Raúl Colon’s illustrations are so rich and textured. What do you think his illustrations add to the text? Is it as you imagined it? Did you get to work with any of your illustrators or separate from them?
T.J. Oh Gloria, when Neal Porter told me that Raúl was illustrating La Casita (we call it that whether it’s in Spanish or in English), I was overwhelmed. I already had one of his books--Good-bye, Havana, Hola, New York! I was actually using it as research for another book on Cuba. He had portrayed Cuba the way I remembered it, and it was good to have his book while I wrote my descriptions. I couldn’t have been happier. His illustrations are so true! I almost cried when I saw the picture of the father. He looked just like my papi. But I have to say, that Duncan Tonatiuh has a wonderful style himself. I loved what he did with Luz Jiménez.
G.A. I’m so glad Papi in the book resembles your father. I can’t imagine how wonderful that must be. I love Raúl’s work as well. I couldn’t be more thrilled that Duncan Tonatiuh illustrated our book because his unique style fit the text perfectly.
Now let’s talk about the equally lovely Spanish version of your book, La casita de esperanza, which is being published simultaneously. How did the decision to publish a Spanish version come about? I read that you translated the Spanish version. How did you feel about being able to do that?
T.J. Oh, gosh. I don’t know how the decision came about. One day, it seemed like I knew that it would be published in Spanish simultaneously. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare. But I was absolutely grateful when Neal proposed that I do the translation myself. You know, I’m not a very good Cuban, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, not in Miami. My Spanish is pretty atrocious. Still. I wanted to do that. Otherwise, it would be like giving away my baby to be raised by someone else. It was an amazing process. First, I did my translation and sent it to my cousin who grew up in Miami and is older, and her Spanish is impeccable. She said I was using many “Cubanisms,” like using guagua instead of autobus, and medias instead of calcetines. Neal agreed with me!!!! He provided me with a fairy god-translator, Eida del Risco, who made sure I didn’t make any mistakes. But then the best thing happened. Some of the Spanish phrases sounded better than the English text, so we changed the construction of the English text to match the Spanish. We changed some words, because the Spanish word lead me in a slightly different direction. You know what that means? To me, it means that both books are “practically perfect in every way.”
G.A. I totally agree with you. Both books are so beautiful! And it’s interesting to know that the translation process led you to changing some of the English.
Can you tell us how your processes for the Definitely Dominguita Series and Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights were different or similar to The Little House of Hope? Of course, since the Pauli Murray is a middle grade biography, it would be different, but did you find any similarities in the writing process itself among the series, the biography and the stand-alone picture book? What drew you to write these different types of books?
T.J. You’re right, it's pretty obvious to see what is different in all three, but let’s talk about what is similar, and that was in finding the heart of the story. Folks may think this is a stretch, but I believe that the heart of all the stories is hope. Esperanza (her name means hope) found hope in the United States. Dominguita, although it is cute fun book, it still is about hope. Dominguita finds hope in a new life with friends. And of course, Pauli Murray was responsible for giving hope to African Americans with her writings and with the laws she caused to be changed. She gave hope to women, who, because of her, got equal pay for equal work. So that’s what I think the similarity is. That we can have hope, but we can have hope because we all understand our common humanity and reach out in friendship to help others.
G.A. Hope is the essence of your books. Kids need to feel that hope. We all do. You had two books come out this year. Does your agent send out several books at once or one at a time? What is the average time for your books to be published? How do you handle having more than one book come out so close together?
T.J. This was a banner year, wasn’t it? One answer is yes, Natalie does send out whatever I have whenever it’s ready. You don’t know when they will be bought, so I bet she’s thinking might as well send them out. I have two out on submission right now. But the more complicated answer is that La Casita was bought before the other two. It took a year for Raul to be able to illustrate La Casita, so that made it come out later. Dominguita was bought three months after La Casita and that took about a year and a half to publish, I think. But then Pauli Murray was sold the following year and it wasn’t supposed to be released until the end of this year, late November. The editors at little bee books (lower case on purpose) decided to bring Pauli Murray up eleven months. So that’s why everything seems to have come at the same time. And the answer to how I handle having one book coming out so close together is that I slept very little and neglected my husband. Thank God for my wonderful husband who does everything that has to be done so I can write. I was writing the Pauli Murray book, (it was sold on proposal) while writing the last of the Dominguita books. It’s still daunting, now, having two books that are coming out so close to each other. I feel like I’m imposing on friends to do things like this blog (thank you). For ALA and NCTE, I’ll be representing two books, I’m still not sure how I feel about that. The thing is you have no control, so you might as well do the best you can. But take good notes on book one, so that you can carry it through.
G.A. I’m so impressed by how you’re handling everything. And thank you for the insight into the submission and publishing processes for your books. I really enjoyed this and your other books, Terry. Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?
T.J. Lots in the mill. There are two picture books out on submission right now, and I am working on a novel in verse about the Cuban revolution (which I started in 2008) so I hope that will be ready soon along with another about Gabby Haley who is half Cuban, half American and her Abuela joins her family when they move to this quaint little northern town. Now Gabby finds herself being a lot more Cuban than she ever was and she’s not sure what to do with that. I hope those two go out on submission this summer. We’re close, thanks for asking.
G.A. What do you hope readers will take away after reading Little House of Hope?
T.J. I hope readers come to understand what a difficult decision it is to leave your country and become an immigrant in a new land. I hope they understand that no matter where we’re from, we are all the same. (Sorry to keep repeating that). Hope young readers understand that families not only leave their country but a way of life, and often family—I never saw my grandmother again. I hope they’ll offer a hand of friendship whenever they have the opportunity.
G.A. Thank you, Terry, for writing this book about the care and support immigrants show each other when they are new. Your book shows the helping hand and hope that sustains them as they become contributors to our country. You are so inspiring!
Order The Little House of Hope and La casita de esperanza today!
On September 11, 1961, Terry Catasús Jennings landed in the United States with her family after a short flight from Cuba. Their only possessions were $50 and one suitcase each. Her family, including her father, who had been jailed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, was now in a free country. On September 12, Terry found herself enrolled in seventh grade, drowning in a sea of English she didn’t understand. With time and help, the family thrived. Terry was a late bloomer in her writing career. The Definitely Dominguita series was named SLJ, Kirkus, and Parents Latina Best Books of 2021. Her biography in verse, Pauli Murray, The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist released in February. In The Little House of Hope, illustrated by Pura Belpré medalist Raúl Colón, Jennings portrays her immigrant experience, showing how a helping hand in a new land can make a life-saving difference for a family. She encourages us all to embrace our common humanity. She lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband, and enjoys visiting with her five grandchildren, often encouraging them to bring their parents along. She is a member of SCBWI, Las Musas Latinx Collaborative and the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC.
Gloria Amescua (Ah MES qua) has been a writer since she was a child, writing poems and stories throughout her life. She loves books that reach a young person’s heart, head or funny bone and strives to do just that in her writing. Gloria’s debut picture book biography, CHILD OF THE FLOWER-SONG PEOPLE: LUZ JIMÉNEZ, DAUGHTER OF THE NAHUA, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams Books, 2021) was awarded a Pura Belpré Author Honor. It was listed as a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection, ALA Notable Books, SLJ’s Best Books 2021 and various other Best of Nonfiction/Informative lists for 2021/2022. Her book was also a 2022 SCBWI Golden Kite finalist for nonfiction text for Young Readers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published one of Gloria’s poems for their national 8th grade textbook literature series. Gloria is an educator, poet and children’s book writer. She believes in children, pets, and possibilities.
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