Here’s a huge extended Happy Book Birthday to our Madrina Jennifer Torres on the release of her latest chapter book series—in hardcover and paperback!--Catalina Incognito!
Alexandra Alessandri interviews Jenifer Torres, but first, a little about the first book of the series, Catalina Incognito, which The Southern Bookseller Review says is “sure to be a charming new chapter book series”!
One Day at a Time meets Mindy Kim in this first book in a charming new chapter book series about Catalina Castaneda, a Mexican American girl with a magical sewing kit!
Catalina Castaneda is not persnickety, even though that’s what her parents and sister, Coco, like to think. Catalina just likes things the way she likes them—perfect.
That’s why it’s very hard to hide her disappointment when her glamorous Tía Abuela, a famous telenovela actress, gives her an old sewing kit for her eighth birthday. However, Catalina soon discovers the sewing kit isn’t as boring as she thinks—it’s magic, turning ordinary clothing into magical disguises.
When Tía Abuela’s most famous costume has rhinestones stolen from it where it’s being displayed at the local library, Catalina gets to work on creating the perfect disfraz (disguise) to track down the thief. But, as Tía Abuela warned her, the magic is only as strong as her stiches, and Catalina doesn’t always have the patience for practice...
Alexandra Alessandri: I’ve been a big fan of yours since I read Stef Soto, Taco Queen a few years ago, so I was incredibly excited to read Catalina Incognito! It’s such a charming, character-driven story that made me very much wish I could have a magic sewing kit! But I loved that it was also a story about not being afraid to fail and try again, a message I think is very important for young readers. (I was also tickled to see a main character with the name Catalina; it’s my cousin’s name and growing up, I didn’t know many Catalinas.)
Jennifer Torres: Oh, thank you so much for such kind words! And especially for reading Catalina. The series is so special to me, and I’m thrilled to finally be able to share it!
AA: I’m always so curious about a story’s origins. Did you start with the character first, a first line, an image? How did you decide to include a magical sewing kit?
JT: My grandmother taught me to sew when I was in elementary school. I can remember watching her work and thinking it was a little like magic the way she could take a piece of fabric, a needle, and thread and turn it into something completely new. The image and the thought stayed with me over the years until I wondered, “Wait, what if it really was magic?” And that was the first spark of the story. So, the magical sewing kit was there from the beginning! Just as importantly (to me), the intergenerational piece was there too.
I’m also interested in celebrating forms of creativity and self-expression that aren’t always—or at least haven’t always—been seen and respected as such. In The Fresh, New Face of Griselda, it was makeup. In the Catalina Incognito series, it’s home-sewing. I’m so lucky to have grown up with grandmothers who made things. I don’t think they would call themselves creative, but they absolutely are. That’s something they gifted me the way Tía Abuela gifts Catalina the sewing kit.
AA: I love this so much! So what was your creation process like for the first book and, by extension, for the rest of the series? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Did you go in knowing it would be a series and what would happen?
JT: Oh, I plot for sure! I really struggle writing anything until I think I understand how all the puzzle pieces are going fit together. That’s not to say it’s a rigid process. Stories evolve, especially in revision, but it helps me a lot to start with an outline. For Catalina Incognito, I had a feeling it would be a series because I knew, based on the premise and the voice I had in mind for the main character, that I wanted to write a chapter book. That said, I didn’t plot the whole series at once. I took it book-by-book (there are four), but I knew there were some common threads (sorry!) I wanted to pull through each one—the sibling story, for example, Cat’s Stitch and Share community, Pablo’s latest telenovela obsession. And, of course, I wanted every book to have an amazing magical disfraz!
AA: I can’t wait to see what other disfrazes are in the rest of the series! They say we put a little bit of ourselves in our stories and characters, and I love the whole cast of characters in Catalina Incognito—from persnickety Catalina to her siblings Coco and Baby Carlos to her parents and glamorous Tía Abuela. They were all so great. With that in mind, which character is most like you and why?
JT: I love them too and am so glad I had the chance to write this big, warm family! While I wish I was as fabulous as Tía Abuela, I can’t even pretend. I’m an older sister, so there’s definitely some of me in Coco (We also share a bit of a clutter problem). Even though Coco knows exactly how to get on Cat’s nerves, she’s also the family member who pushes Cat hardest and believes in her most. I hope I’m that kind of sister.
And, of course, Cat’s frustration at her own mistakes, her impatience to get through the clumsy beginnings of learning something new are very deeply familiar.
AA: Oof, yeah. I think Cat’s impatience and frustration are going to be really relatable for readers. I love the nod toward childhood nicknames, and how we tend to outgrow them as we age (usually lol). It made me think of my own nickname—la maquinita—given to me by my Tía Abuela Beatriz because I would get into all her drawers and closets. So of course, that made me curious: What was your childhood nickname? Or, if you didn’t have one, what would you have wanted it to be?
JT: I LOVE that nickname and the story behind it! I think I’ve been called every possible variation of Jennifer. And you can tell which period of my life someone met me in by the one they use. I don’t mind any, but it does throw me a little when someone from the Jenn days calls me Jenny for example.
AA: I loved the nuances we get into Catalina’s family right from the first chapter that reminded me of my own family and customs: the politeness Catalina exhibits, the nod to telenovelas, the family dynamics, the full name warning. How much of these nuances were based on your own family and your own experiences?
JT: I’m so glad those details resonated! They have made the books so special to write. My editor, Alyson Heller, was also committed to the family story, and I love that we were able to keep the Castañedas at the heart of the series.
They are very much based on my own family and experiences. Like Catalina, I’m Mexican-American, and grew up with two working parents, and with grandparents, tías and tíos, and cousins who have always been very present in my life. When we see Catalina with her family, there’s always a lot going in the background—someone cooking lunch, someone chasing after the baby, someone getting ready for their shift at work. That was rhythm of my childhood too, while the mix of English and Spanish Catalina hears around her was its sound.
AA: That’s beautiful! I recognized some of that rhythm, too, and it reminded me of my own family and childhood.
You’re the author of several other middle grade novels and chapter books, including Stef Soto, Taco Queen; Flor and Miranda Steal the Show; Twins Vs. Triplets; The Fresh New Face of Griselda; and the upcoming The Do-Over. How is the process different between writing standalone novels and those in a series?
JT: I love that middle grade books meet readers at a time when their worlds are getting bigger. And I love that chapter books meet readers when they are just beginning to explore their worlds on their own terms (reading independently, making their first best friends, exploring hobbies.) I feel so grateful that I’ve gotten to write both!
One important difference for me in writing a series like Catalina Incognito versus a standalone novel was in needing to think about how Catalina would grow and change within each story as well as across all four books. The way she responds to challenges is different (I hope!) in Book 4 than in Book 1, yet there has to be enough consistency that readers recognize her as the same character.
Another big difference was in working with an illustrator, the amazing Gladys Jose, who brought Catalina and her world to life with so much warmth and charm. Knowing the books would be illustrated made me think about them in more visual terms than I might have with an unillustrated middle grade novel.
AA: I loved Gladys Jose’s illustrations! Fun question: If you could have one magical object, what would it be?
JT: This is fun. Lately I’ve been wishing I had a time-travel device. Or even a time-freezing device! Just to linger a little while longer in cozy moments with my family. Though a magical sewing kit like Catalina’s would be pretty great too.
AA: A time-freezing or time-travel device would be SO useful! I would get so much more done. Lol What advice do you have for writers wishing to write and publish chapter books?
JT: Read lots of chapter books! There are so many excellent ones, and it’s really a joy. When I first shared a draft of what would become Catalina Incognito with my agent, she said there was a lot she loved about it, but that I had more work to do. The voice, the structure—all of it was reading a little too old. And she was right! I had just finished writing two middle grade novels, and I needed to recalibrate. She suggested I read and study more chapter books, and I did. It made a huge difference. I don’t think anything helped more than that.
I also think it can be valuable to get to know chapter book readers. Not necessarily personally, but to understand what they’re experiencing from a child development perspective. They’re often navigating new independence and the dynamics of new communities—teams, classrooms, friend groups. (That’s so exciting, but it can also feel sort of perilous at times!) They’re compassionate and curious. And also very funny.
AA: That’s such great advice! What do you hope readers will take away from the series?
JT: Tía Abuela shares a dicho—a saying, or bit of wisdom—with Catalina in each book. In the first book it’s this: “Coser y cantar, todo es empezar.” To me, it speaks to the importance of just starting when approaching something new. Coco puts it in her own words: “You won’t start to get better until you … start.”
That’s a lesson I have to learn every time I begin a new book, or really anything new. I hope it’s one that stays with readers and inspires them to push through those worries about messing up or just not being as good as you want to be. It’s all about starting.
I also hope readers take away they knowledge that creativity—to put something new in the world—is a very powerful kind of magic.
AA: I love that so much. Can you tell us what we can expect from you next?
JT: I get to share six new books this year! Three are part of the Catalina Incognito series. The others are The Do-Over, a middle grade novel about family and change set in the pandemic; the second book in the Twins vs. Triplets chapter book series about poor David Suárez and his prank-loving neighbors; and the picture book Lola Out Loud, inspired by civil rights activist Dolores Huerta and my own family’s history of farm and cannery work. I also have a couple of new projects that haven’t been announced. I can’t wait to say more soon!
Purchase Catalina Incognito today!
Jennifer Torres is the author of Stef Soto, Taco Queen, 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
Alexandra Alessandri is the award-winning author of FELIZ NEW YEAR, AVA GABRIELA! (Albert Whitman) and the forthcoming ISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL (Sleeping Bear Press). The daughter of Colombian immigrants, she is also an Associate Professor of English at Broward College and a poet, with some of her work appearing in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, Atlanta Review, and Young Adult Review Network. Alexandra lives in Florida with her husband and son.
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