We are less than three weeks from Election Day in the United States (November 8th). Even though many picture book readers are too young to vote, they are not too young to learn about the political process. Books highlighting political figures, voting, and democracy can be springboards for educators and caregivers to a discussion about elections, candidates, canvassing, and more.
Today, we are celebrating Pura Belpré Honor-winning Anika Aldamuy Denise’s and Loris Lora’s latest picture book, Phenomenal AOC: The Roots and Rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (HarperCollins Publishers), an inspiring biography of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The book follows America’s youngest congresswoman, known to many as AOC, from her early days in the Bronx all the way to the Capitol steps—with a glossary for change-makers included. Keep reading for a conversation between Anika Aldamuy Denise and Musa Alyssa Reynoso-Morris!
Alyssa Reynoso-Morris: First, thank you so much for writing this super important text, Anika. As a fellow AOC fan, I enjoyed this read and learned a lot about AOC. Tell me, what inspired you to write this book?
Anika Aldamuy Denise: Thank you, Alyssa! I remember we discussed our mutual love and respect for AOC back when we did the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival panel together in 2021, so it’s very meaningful to me to know you enjoyed the book. My inspiration came from the Congresswoman, herself. In 2018, a friend of mine sent me her campaign video, The Courage To Change. I remember watching it and getting that feeling—the same feeling I had when Barack Obama delivered his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. That I was witnessing a moment, the moment, he entered the collective consciousness of a nation. Except this time, I saw myself. A woman who looked like me, sounded like me, and had a family like mine. It was powerful. How could I not write that story?
Alyssa: I love that. I empathize. Hearing AOC speak and advocate for her community is inspiring. A follow-up question, how do you decide who to write about, or better yet where do you get inspiration from?
Anika: I love centering powerful Puerto Rican women in stories that show the world how formidable we are. With Pura Belpré, I saw my elders—the women in my own family who were the storytellers and memory keepers. Rita Moreno, for me, is this amazing combination of strength, vulnerability, honesty, and joy. Like Pura’s, her story felt familiar to me, but in an entirely different way. Even though I’ve never danced on Broadway or starred in a film, as a Latina who has worked in several White-male dominated spaces, I’ve had to prove my worth and talents. With AOC, she’s a glimpse at our future. She’s who we can be if we’re brave and unapologetic.
Alyssa: I love that you center power Puertorriquenas in your work! I too write for “the memory keepers” in my life so that comment about Pura Belpré and your family, resonated. Thank you for sharing that.
I consider you the Queen of picture books (PB). You’ve written Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré, A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer! and now Phenomenal AOC: The Roots and Rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Can you share some tips when it comes to writing PB biographies?
Anika: Aw, thank you! Does having three books make me a Queen? I think maybe Monica Brown might be wearing that crown. Or Margarita Engle! I’m more like a member of the Queen’s court who paid close attention to the Royals who came before. What I learned from them, and what I’d pass on to other writers, is to keep your kid readers top of mind when writing picture book biographies. What are they going to connect to most in a person’s story? Where are the moments of drama and tension? How will thematic metaphor, symbolism, structure, etc. deepen their understanding and set your story apart? I also think the tone and voice of the story should fit the subject and person you’re writing about.
Alyssa: Those are great questions to keep in mind and I have a feeling I will be using them myself. Thank you for that. How do you decide what to include and omit given that picture books are shorter texts?
Anika: That’s always a challenge. I employ the kitchen-sink approach when I’m researching. Then I lay it all out, step back, and look for the themes and connections I mentioned before. For AOC, the themes that emerged were roots, community, family, hard work, and service. They helped me point my lens at the most emotionally resonant moments of her life. When deciding what to include, I focus on constructing a tight story arc. Any details that fall outside it, but still need to be told, get woven into backmatter.
I also have the benefit of collaborating with amazing illustrators whose art helps tell the story. Loris Lora did an incredible job crafting a vibrant visual narrative that elevates the text. And she nailed AOC! The expressions, body language, posture--everything is spot-on perfection.
Alyssa: Loris Lora did nail AOC. And yes, backmatter is a great tool. I consider this book beautifully balanced. It teaches your reader about AOC while simultaneously being written poetically. How do you balance facts and poetic language? Does this come out throughout the editing process?
Anika: - I have a strong preference for spare, lyrical picture book biographies. Keeping my word count down is an exercise in restraint (and sometimes frustration!). I usually clock in at around 1,000 words on a first draft (which is too long), then I trim it down below 800 if I can. I’d love to one day pull off writing something even shorter – in the 300-400 word range – like The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlen. That book is pure genius to me.
Alyssa: Ambitious! WOW! Not only are you an award-winning author, but you’re also a wife and mom. How do you make time to write?
Anika: I write in the margins: mornings, weekends, in the pickup line at school. I work as an editor for an educational publisher as well, so I have to carve out moments outside of the traditional workday. I often take writing holidays or even just “writing afternoons” when my family knows I am non-negotiably unavailable. It can be challenging. But soon enough life will change, kids will be grown, and there will be more time for writing. I don’t want to rush it. But it is nice to know that my second act will allow me to fully focus on projects that are awaiting my undivided attention.
Alyssa: Cheers to writing in the margins and in our second acts. Without giving too much away, you include 5 lessons on how to be a phenomenal changemaker like AOC. How did you come up with that idea? And how did you distill it to just 5 lessons?
Anika: - For this book I really didn’t want to do traditional backmatter. I thought it was important to take a fresh approach; to make it playful and irreverent. Part of AOC’s brilliance is in her ability to connect with her fans and constituents in authentic, unexpected ways. The lessons in the book were written in that spirit. Credit for the brevity goes to my brilliant editor, Luana Horry. I could have gone on and on but she encouraged me to distill them down to the most relevant, inspirational takeaways. She was also the one to suggest we not call the glossary a “glossary.” We titled it “Language of the Possible,” which I love.
Alyssa: Brilliant! Yes, I love editors that focus us and challenge us all at once. Can you share how you, like AOC, are using your changemaker skills to give back to “the boogie down Bronx…” and as you refer to it “New York City’s northern crown?”
Anika: This book in many ways is a love letter to my childhood neighborhoods and communities. My great-grandparents lived in The Bronx. I am a product of both private and public schools in Queens. My father, like AOC’s, worked “in and for his community” at the Urban League. My mom was a journalist. I knew that I wanted this book to be in service to AOC’s district somehow. So I connected with the always-amazing Saraciea Fennell of The Bronx is Reading to help fundraise to bring a bricks-and-mortar independent children’s bookstore to The Bronx. You can order a copy of Phenomenal AOC from their online bookshop to help support their campaign. And we’re planning more events (hopefully one with AOC in attendance!) to raise additional funds and promote TBIR’s literary programs and events. So stay tuned!
Alyssa: AYE! BE STILL MY HEART! YES, sending all the good vibes. It would be so dope to have AOC herself there. AYE!!! Ok, last but not least, what do you hope readers take away from Phenomenal AOC: The Roots and Rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
Anika: I hope they are inspired to use their voices, to speak the “language of the possible” even when confronting complex challenges or difficult truths. Like AOC said, “Justice is about making sure that being polite is not the same thing as being quiet. In fact, sometimes the most righteous thing you can do is shake the table.”
Purchase Phenomenal AOC: The Roots and Rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez today!
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