A huge Las Musas happy book birthday to Alexandra Katona on the release of her debut picture book, Dinner on Domingos!
Alexandra Alessandri interviews Alexandra Katona (tocayas!)—but first, here’s a little bit about this sweet story, which is part of the Children’s Book Council September 2021 "Hot Off the Press Reading List." Kirkus Reviews called it “an ebullient celebration of family and the rituals that bring a family together” and Booklist called it “a warm story of family, food, and fun [that is a] wonderful celebration of culture and family.
"This magical home turns a normal Sunday into domingo: the best day of the week."
Warm memories wash over a first-generation Latinx American girl as she experiences a typical Sunday night dinner at her Abuelita's house. As Alejandra thinks about all the good times her family has had there, she decides that she wants to be brave and try speaking Spanish with Abuelita so that they can deepen their bond. A timely #OwnVoices tale that reflects the experience of many American families.
Alexandra Alessandri: Dinner on Domingos reminded me so much of my family’s gatherings when I was growing up and how we would always gravitate toward my abuelitos’ place for all events. They were all full of “beautiful chaos,” a description I read in your cover reveal post and which I loved because it’s so on point. In Dinner on Domingos, you deftly weave a sensory experience of a multigenerational family coming together around Abuelita for Sunday dinner, and through this, you touch on themes of family and identity.
I know Dinner on Domingos was inspired by your own abuela and family, and the memories of these Sunday dinners. Could you tell us a bit more about why it was important for you to write about these particular memories? When did you realize you wanted to write this multigenerational family coming together every Sunday to share a meal?
Alexandra Katona: First, thanks so much for having me on the blog and for your wonderful questions. It’s an honor to be here with you.
I had been working with my former agent and writing non-fiction stories for quite some time, and I needed a break. I wasn’t really sure what to write about since non-fiction had been on my plate for so long. I started writing down ideas, and the concept of writing about my abuelita stuck. She’s currently 97 years old, and she’s losing her memory, which is very expected but hard to watch. I guess part of me wanted to keep these memories alive for her - and for all my family.
Sitting down and having a meal together is one of the things I look forward to most days - it’s a time to slow down and catch up. Eventually, after many revisions and edits, I landed at Sunday dinners during my childhood. I didn’t realize how vivid everything still was for me. Although I wrote it before the pandemic, it seems to strike a greater chord now. The pandemic has been beyond horrific, but it has made us slow down and focus on what’s important.
AA: What was your creation process like when writing Dinner on Domingos? Did it flow easily from idea to finished product, or where there lots of sharp turns and detours? What was the most challenging part of writing the story? What was the easiest or most surprising?
AK: I wanted to write about my abuelita but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I first started with a young girl and her abuelita in the kitchen making locro, or soup, together. It wasn’t super dynamic and it was full of metaphors that I didn’t think would make a strong connection with a young reader. I revised many times until I finally ended up with a story about Sunday dinners - but it was still missing something. After all, there are lots of books about family and food, but I wanted mine to be unique.
I realized that my memories were compartmentalized into rooms of my abuelita’s home. So, I decided it’d be fun to take the reader on a tour and fill in those memories as the young girl in the story went around the home. It wasn’t challenging to flesh out my memories - they seemed so alive in my head even after all these years. The smells, the colors, the textures. The biggest challenge was making it fun and dynamic for younger readers, since my first drafts had some heavy themes about immigration and making a new life in a foreign land. I struggle with this in early drafts - the language and themes can be a bit mature, so scaling down and changing language are usually necessary for me.
AA: Dinner on Domingos is based on your experiences while growing up, and the main character’s name is Alejandra, which is quite similar to your own name. Can you tell us a little more about this decision? How alike are you with Alejandra?
AK: The main character is pretty much me as a kid. My mom wanted to name me Alejandra but went with Alexandra instead, and to her horror, lots of friends called me Al well into high school. So I wanted to honor her and this beautiful name I love. As a kid, I didn’t know ANY Spanish. I clearly remember those Taco Bell commercials, and the chihuahua that said “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” I looked at my mom and said, “What’s he saying?” She was shocked I didn’t know, but I was in 7th grade and had never been taught the language. Then, when my abuelito passed away in high school, I felt frustrated because I felt like I barely knew him. He always spoke to me in Spanish and I never knew what he was saying, let alone have the words to answer back. After he passed, I vowed to learn Spanish so I would have a better connection with my abuelita. I minored in Spanish in college and studied it traveling and through work. I am so grateful I can speak with her, since her English is pretty much nonexistent these days. So while Alejandra in the story is a lot younger than I was when I realized I wanted to learn Spanish, we’re similar in many other ways (I also love playing tag and feeding birds from my abuelita’s porch).
AA: Claudia Navarro’s illustrations are so beautiful! I loved how they complemented your story so beautifully. How did you feel when you saw Claudia’s sketches and color illustrations for the first time? Were there any fun surprises?
AK: I saw the illustrations MONTHS ago and I’m still blown away by how lovely they are. She completely captured my abuelita’s home and was even willing to add in some details that really turned it into her home. She added a rotary phone in la cocina, the kitchen, which is amazing because my cousins and I would always play with it or rush to answer it if it rang. She also added a bunch of elements in the dining room, like the doors and furniture (and even the decorative plates) that really transformed it into her space. And the way she drew the facade had me in tears the first time I saw it. It’s just gorgeous.
AA: Dinner on Domingos is your debut picture book. What’s been the most surprising part of this journey? And, can you share what’s next for you or what you’re working on next?
AK: The most surprising part for me was how willing Claudia was to capture my abuelita’s home and add elements that made it special to me. I’ve heard so many different stories about working with illustrators (like only seeing the book when it’s completed), so I had no idea what to expect. I’m just so honored and grateful that the Barefoot Books team is so collaborative. It was a real honor to have Claudia illustrate this book.
AA: What do you hope your readers will take away after reading Dinner on Domingos?
AK: I’m Ecuadorian, but I hope elements of this story resonate with families from all backgrounds. I look forward to hearing about other reader’s memories around food and culture, since I think food can bring us to a particular time in our life - and that’s just so special to me. I love the connective power of food.
AA: Finally, if you could give an aspiring author one piece of advice, what would it be?
Write what you love and are passionate about! My manuscripts that resonate more with people all have one common theme: I LOVED telling that particular story because it made me excited to share it with the world. Do you!
Buy Dinner on Domingos today!
ABOUT ALEXANDRA KATONA...
Dinner on Domingos is an ode to Sunday family dinners at my abuelita’s house. It explores the connectivity of food, but it also explores the ways a young girl tries to connect with her abuelita when she doesn’t speak much Spanish. And while it’s about Sunday dinners at my abuelita's casa with my Ecuadorian family, I hope families from all backgrounds can identify with the beautiful chaos of a multigenerational gathering.
I also write stories and help shape narratives for coffee producers in Latin America. For over twelve years, I’ve been working in the specialty coffee industry to bring more value to origin. I’m currently running marketing and communications for an amazing non-profit, Food 4 Farmers, that focuses on food-security for coffee-farming communities. Yes, I love coffee. And yes, I’d love to see a more equitable supply chain.
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