Happy Book Birthday to Cindy L Rodriguez’s Three Pockets Full: A story of love, family and tradition!
Terry: Cindy, I am so delighted to interview you about your latest book, Three Pockets Full. And please note that it is not three pocketfuls (which my spell check doesn’t love anyway) but Three Pockets Full. We’ll talk more about that. But I have to tell you that you have done so much for the Latinx kidlit community that I just wanted to do the interview to give just a little tiny bit back to you. I am grateful for all you have done and continue to do for all of us and I am so happy to be celebrating your debut picture book with you. Tell me, you are prolific and your writing spans from YA to now picture books. You have been a journalist. What brought you to this story?
Cindy: Hi Terry! Thanks so much for interviewing me! I have grown up around men in guayaberas, especially my dad, who is from Puerto Rico. When I was brainstorming ideas for Latinx-themed picture books, focusing on the guayabera was one idea that rose to the surface when I couldn’t find any other books specifically about this traditional garment. I tried different approaches. In one version Beto had an older sister who was getting married, for example. Ultimately, I decided to have Beto’s Mami get remarried, and the shirt came into play that way. Also, I taught in public schools for 21 years, and so many of my students have blended families, so I wanted to combine these things—the shirt plus a parent getting remarried, creating a blended family.
Terry: I totally get it. When I picture my papi, he is wearing a guayabera. And I am happy you landed on Mami and the blended family. You are right, that’s what so many children experience, you had to do it. Now let’s talk about your other work. Your YA book is a very serious book, dealing with mental health issues. Your Jake Maddox books are for middle graders and they’re all about sports. Then you just had a non-fiction picture book The Doomed Search for the Lost City of Z. What a range of interests! Can you chat with us about which of these genres you like best, what they bring to you?
Cindy: I think this is a left-over effect of being a journalist. When I covered towns in Connecticut, each day was something different, and I’d have to adjust. One day, I’d attend a planning and zoning commission meeting (fun!), and the next day, I’d write a profile of the town’s teacher of the year. I’m always open to different topics and formats. Also, after my YA released, I had issues with agents and did not have another contract. To keep writing and remain in the publishing world, I started doing work-for-hire projects. The Jake Maddox books and Lost City of Z are all work-for-for-hire projects published by Capstone. I learned something valuable with each project. With the Jake Maddox books, I learned about different sports, plus one is a mystery, which I had never done before. Lost City of Z is a non-fiction graphic novel, so that was a whole new process! Doing work-for-hire projects keeps me writing while I wait, wait, wait for something to happen with my personal projects in traditional publishing.
Terry: I feel the same way about work for hire, I just finished a project. It does keep you writing. And it’s a great opportunity to learn something new. You dedicate the book to your dad “who looks super cool in a guayabera.” In addition to Beto’s story, this book is a primer on the history of guayaberas. Tell us more about the evolution of the story, the melding of the two threads, Beto’s thread and the history of the Mexican Wedding shirt.
Cindy: I talked a bit about Beto’s story above, but more on my dad…He was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Chicago with his family when he was young. Fast forward many years, he joined the Peace Corps and was stationed in Brazil, where he met and married my mom. Because of his time in Brazil and his relationship with my mom, my dad is fluent in Portuguese, as well as Spanish and English. And, honestly, since my mom had a bigger family and didn’t speak English when she first moved to the U.S., my siblings and I heard more Portuguese than Spanish while growing up. Because of this, I always make a conscious effort to research and dig into my Puerto Rican side, to honor and not forget my dad’s roots. While the guayabera is called the Mexican wedding shirt, it is popular throughout Latin America and Southeast Asian countries. The guayabera was often the go-to shirt for my dad when we were going out somewhere, so I wanted to learn more about its history and honor my dad.
Terry: This book is both hilarious and poignant. Three things I want to explore. One is whether this story has a basis in your life? The other question, or maybe comment that I want you to reflect on is that this is a very poignant story, but the humor in the beginning makes the revelation at the end that much more moving. The last thing is that you are the master of foreshadowing. This is a picture book, yet it unfolds as a mystery. You dribble out the clues slowly, as the story goes along, but it’s not until the very end that the reader understands Beto’s motivation. Can you tell us about your journey to that form?
Cindy: I did not grow up in a blended family, but my own is very much so. I adopted my daughter from Guatemala as a single parent almost 16 years ago, and I married my husband who is 100% white by way of rural Vermont, only four years ago. So, my daughter is a Guatemalan adopted into a Puerto Rican/Brazilian family and has a white step-dad, plus an older step-brother and step-sister. Whew! So, yeah, this, plus thinking about my students, I wanted to write something about blended families and some of the emotions that a young person might feel. At the same time, this is a picture book, so I wanted to inject some humor. As a former teacher and as a mom, I have seen the things children do when they want to avoid a tough situation. I drew from that for Beto’s antics. The back-and-froth between Beto and Mami also allowed me to get in some of the history of the guayabera. I also like stories when there’s an “Ah-ha” moment. So, in this case, readers will first think it’s about the shirt—a cultural thing that’s not cool, but he’s being forced to accept. This alone is a thing that happens in families—the older generation forcing something onto the younger generation to preserve traditions. Later, though, I wanted readers to then go, “Oh, it’s not really about the shirt. His feelings stem from something else, something deeper.”
Terry: Well, brava! You did it. It worked beautifully. I love, love, love, Beto. His voice is perfect, and he is absolutely imaginative. I loved when he dressed up the dog in the guayabera. Who was the model for Beto?
Cindy: Beto wasn’t modeled on a single child, but, as stated above, I pulled from my experiences as a mom and teacher. Children have big emotions, but they don’t always know how to express them, or they do so in ways that are anything but straightforward. I remembered my daughter used to cover her eyes, like if she couldn’t see me, then I couldn’t see her! Or she’d shove everything under her bed or in the laundry basket to “clean” her room. I once found a computer keyboard in her laundry! Hysterical! Like, if I just shove things out of sight, the problem is solved. Beto seems to think by returning the shirt in creative ways, he will wear down Mami and get his way, but nope…not going to happen….which leads us to our next question :.)
Terry: Beto’s mantra to wearing the guayabera to the wedding is “NOPE, NUNCA, NOT GOING TO HAPPEN.” Sometimes there is a phrase that turns the story on in my mind. I love it so much, that I weave the story around it. Did that happen to you with that phrase? Which came first, the story or the phrase?
Cindy: I think the story came first, as I remember doing the research and drafting first. I had a friend who simply said, “No,” whenever she wanted to dismiss an idea or something that happened. Nowadays, we hear that more often, and there’s even the movie “Nope,” which I haven’t seen, but we often respond with these simple phrases: No. Nope. Not okay. I think it was this kind of thought process that created Beto’s refrain.
Terry: Another tool you use in the story is the use of notes. After the first verbal exchange, Beto tells his mother all the reasons he won’t wear the guayabera to the wedding via notes which he places in the pockets of the guayabera. His mother answers in a similar way. Even the history of the guayabera is told through the notes. How did you come up with that idea?
Cindy: I could have kept all of it in the back matter, but not everyone might read the information in the back of the book. I really wanted to weave the information into the story to give the reader more to think about. You could read it once, focusing on his feelings and the family aspect. You can read it again, with a focus on the guayabera itself, the history, etc. As a veteran teacher, I think I’m always thinking about including nonfiction that can be used in the classroom. Sometimes, it works, sometimes it doesn’t and it makes more sense to keep all of it in the back matter. With this story, since Beto and Mami are communicating through notes, it seemed to work.
Terry: Yes! It really worked. And it added humor as well. What can you tell me about the illustrations? I loved the cover. It is perfect because it features the guayabera and its pockets. And nothing else. Begoña Fernandez Corbalán did a fantastic job capturing not just Beto, and Lupe the dog, who are both adorable, but also the mother. And then again, there is David in the background. Always in the background. What can you tell us about how you feel about the illustrations?
Cindy: I was thrilled with the illustrations! Begoña did an amazing job capturing the characters. Lupe, the dog, is a total scene stealer. I am a huge dog lover, so I loved all of Lupe’s expressions and how much the dog added to the story. And David being present was not my idea, so kudos to Begoña and the publisher (if they discussed it first). When I saw him there, I thought it was brilliant. The reader probably thinks David is his dad and the wedding is someone else’s—a cousin, aunt, whoever, and Beto just hates this traditional shirt. And then, at the end, you realize David and Mami are getting married! And he’s been around the whole time, also witnessing Beto’s antics. Poor guy! :.) But that’s reality, right? He’s there, and he’s part of the story, but, really, Mami and Beto have to work through something important themselves.
Terry: Begoña really did hit it out of the park having David there. And absolutely, at first I thought it was this random unimportant wedding and the book was all about the guayabera. You both have given teachers and parents so much to work with. Kudos to you both. On your website, you say I teach. I write. I dwell in possibility. Can you share what that means to you?
Cindy: On August 29, I started a new job after 21 years in teaching. Who knows, I may still tutor or teach at the local community college, but for now, it’s the first time in two decades that I’m not teaching. Being an educator has taught me so much about myself, about children, about learning, and more. It’s been a crucial part of who I am and how I’ve grown over the years. This is also true about writing and the phrase I dwell in Possibility. As a lifelong learner and writer, I am always looking ahead and thinking about what’s possible. That keeps me interested in the world and makes me wonder how I can contribute positively in this lifetime. Plus, I’m a huge Emily Dickinson fan/nerd, and “I dwell in Possibility” is from one of her poems.
Terry: Well, of course. Love that idea. Cindy, tell us what else is on the horizon for you? What other projects can you tell us and not tell us about?
Cindy: In January 2023, another nonfiction graphic novel comes out with Capstone, called The Mount Everest Disaster of 1996. Right now, I have two picture books on submission with editors—one is about Three Kings Day and the other is a back-to-school story. I am also working on two middle grade projects—one that is a personal project and another that is work-for-hire, which has been acquired but has not been announced yet, so I can’t reveal any details. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share the good news soon!
Terry: I can’t wait to hear the good news. Cindy, it has been a pleasure chatting with you. I wish you every success and look forward to working with you more in Las Musas.
Be sure to put THREE POCKETS FULL on your to-read list!
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