Latina writer of books for kids of all ages.

A quick round-up of things you might want to put on your calendar for the next few weeks.

  • Journalist Juan Gonzalez, co-host of Democracy Now, will speak at the University of Richmond this Wednesday night. His talk is called Paradise Lost, and the lens is on Puerto Rico – the roots of its economic collapse, the devastation since Hurricane Maria, and what it’s really going to take to bring back that beautiful island. (January 31, 2018, 5 PM, Ukrop Auditorium, at University of Richmond, 28 Westhampton Way, Richmond, VA 23173)

 

  • How do kids learn to love words, books and reading – especially if English is a challenge for them?  Storyteller and picture book author Carmen Agra Deedy will be at the University of Richmond to work her magic on audiences, weaving personal story and insights. (Here’s a shot of her new picture book which is all about finding your voice.) Wed., February 21, 2018, 5:30 – 6:30 PM, University of Richmond Center for Leadership

 

  • I have a new book for your bedside table:  The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande whose memoir is this year’s All County Reads selection in Henrico County. She’ll be appearing at Glen Allen High School, to discuss the book on Wed April 11, 7 – 8:30 PM. (Doors open at 6:30 PM.) Meanwhile, you can go to any of your local libraries after Feb 1 to register to win a free copy of her book.

    (young readers edition)

     

  • And a PS, you’ll have to hurry if you haven’t seen Nuestras Histórias at the Valentine Museum. How long have Latinos been in the Richmond region? Where are we from?  What have been our contributions so far? Hurry. The exhibit closes April 15. The Valentine Museum, 1015 E Clay Street, Richmond, VA 23219

 

As readers of this blog know, I like to introduce new Latinx writers, especially those whom I’m lucky to meet in person on the road. Today, I’m talking with debut novelist Noni Ramos about The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary (Carol Rhoda Lab Books/Lerner 2018; 292 pages; Young adult.) She’s a new voice, but it’s a startling and strong one, and I predict a long career of great work.

Macy is the girl you’ve probably seen in school at some point. She’s the one who spends a lot of time in the office being “supervised” by long-suffering deans when things get too hot in the classroom, the one who has a million labels pinned on her. LD, ADD, disturbed, at-risk – the list goes on.

Told in a dictionary format of the words that define her life, Macy’s story is about the girls who are at the heart of those labels and how they get there. It’s a heartbreakingly honest work and, at times, a darkly hilarious one, too. As an author, what Noni brings to the table is a master class on voice and edge. Here she talks a bit on finding the character and how her own experiences as teacher and foster mom led her to the story.

 Congratulations on this as your debut novel. What kind of writing had you been doing leading up to this? How did you find Macy’s story?

Muchas gracias!

Poetry and plays are my first loves. It wasn’t until well after my MFA that I delved into writing YA. Macy embodies the voice of all the kids who sit in the back of the room. The student who keeps you up at night. The student who shows up late, and you think, despite yourself (and with too much excitement), is she absent? But she is NEVER absent. She’s embodies all those students.

I’m curious about the challenges of drawing these characters since we’re in a world that’s chaotic and out of control. Macy is so difficult and violent, and yet we root for her. What were some of the decisions you made in how you developed her so that she felt sympathetic?  

Macy is concrete poetry. She’s rough and jagged. She doesn’t fall into that “wise-child” trope. The dictionary structure makes her world accessible. Gets the reader past the barbed wire. On the outside we see the child who sets a trash can fire. Inside, we get to know why.

What makes kids like Macy sympathetic to me is their fierce protectiveness of family–for Macy, her brother Zane and George and Alma. Another—the humor. The hijinks. Macy may be 25 in in inner city-kid years, but in reality she’s only 15. And sometimes, because of the childhood she’s missed, she’s more like seven, five …

The love and friendship between Alma and Macy is heartbreaking. Each girl is used and abused by her parents and is working her best to get by. I don’t want to offer spoilers, but what is it about Macy that makes her a better survivor than Alma?

I think Macy has learned not to expect anything from anybody. For all her skewed thinking, she believes in her raw intelligence. She’s never trusted externals. And for all the failures of adults in her life, she believes in justice. As a teenager, she has survived more than most adults.

So Alma—it’s complicated. When a kid of color makes it out of poverty, we celebrate. We say, they stuck with it. They studied hard. School is the answer. When I was growing up, I was told I better be good at school or I’d be cleaning up other people’s garbage.

I’m a teacher. I believe in public education. But school isn’t the only answer. At least not in isolation. For every kid we celebrate, there are hundreds more who aren’t making it. Or who aren’t living their dream. Because of segregation. Because of inequity. Because of the lack of representation (in books). Because of mental health issues. Because of rape culture. The teachers are qualified. Inspired. What tools can we give them so we have more Almas and the Almas of the world make it? We shouldn’t be expecting just that rose in the concrete. We should be expecting a whole bush. A garden. And what do we do with those Macys? What’s our dream for her?

Authors Emma Otheguy, David Bowles, and Noni Ramos at NCTE 2017

For all the hard life circumstances in this story, it’s also very funny. I’m thinking of the exchanges Macy has with the people at her school as well as the chapters focused on Macy’s insistence that vaginas should come armed or spit fire, and the day she tapes her breasts. Tell me about your choice to use gallows humor at the most intense moments of the novel. What did humor offer you as a writer that other strategies didn’t?

I think funny-but-true is what I wanted for Macy. How does a kid navigate through Macy’s world? I feel like was easier for Odysseus to get home than Macy to get to school and back again. How does a kid’s brain process all this “adult” stuff. Humor is survival for Macy. It’s sanity. It’s Macy’s feminism.

With the “gallows humor” maybe I’m pushing the reader to see Macy. Not the hair, not the piercings, not the desk-throwing.  Just that little girl hiding in a sweat shirt.

 What were the considerations you had in how you drew emotionally disabled kids and their families?

One big issue I thought about was how to write an emotionally disturbed person of color. I specifically left any mention of race or culture out unless it referred to power and triumph. I  wanted Macy’s circumstances to be distinctly separate from her being Puerto Rican.

That being said, I wrote Macy’s story.

One of my biggest sources of pride is Kirkus and Booklist saying I wrote with empathy and authenticity. Those are the keys to representing anyone with dignity. Even Macy’s mother is entitled to back story and a measure of forgiveness.

I read in your bio that you are a foster parent yourself. What has drawn you to that role, and how did that experience impact your work on The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary?

I always wanted to be a foster parent. For awhile I taught third-fifth grade and fostered! What drew me to it was my desire to avoid kidnapping charges. I had students that I was terrified were going to get taken by CPS.

These two kids in particular—their dad lived down the block, but disowned them. Their mother was MIA. Then their grandmother got breast cancer. So so many abuelas were taking care of their grandkids in our barrio. I heard the one girl talking about this casually while piecing puzzles together. I went home and said, Miguel, can we take them?

He said no, of course, but got the computer and showed me a website about foster parenting. The journey began. (Luckily my students’ aunt stepped up.)

I am not fostering now. The training required is rigorous and all-encompassing. There are months of interviews, self-defense training, CPR, character witnesses, classes …. GODDESS BLESS all those foster parents out there. My activism continues through my teaching and writing.

 What are you working on next?

Right now I’m editing my second YA book, The Book of Love, about my overachiever, Verdad, who’s struggling with her best friend’s brutal death while meeting her mother’s expectations. She falls for a classmate—who happens to be trans—and their romance forces her to confront her demons and figure out who she really is. It’s about the ordinary reality of a real POC kid: burgeoning sexuality, family expectations, dealing with institutionalized racism, planning for a future. And then there is that magical middle grade novel and picture book. Stay tuned!

Pre-order your copy of The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary.

 

Connect with Noni Ramos:

https://twitter.com/NoNiLRamos

https://www.facebook.com/DisturbedGirlsDictionary/  

https://www.instagram.com/noni.ramos/           

http://nonilramos.tumblr.com/

 

Feliz Año Nuevo, everyone!

The holidays, a chest cold, and assorted family emergencies kept me off this blog for a few weeks. Sorry about that!  But I’m back with the best launch into 2018.

As we head into award season, I’ve had a chance to think about so many of the books that I especially loved last year. Among my favorites of 2017 was a little gem of a middle grade novel: The First Rule of Punk by Celia Pérez (Viking Books for Young Readers 978-0425290408)

Celia is a librarian, a mom, and a zine addict who has confirmed for me that, yes, folding those suckers can be the hardest part.  She’s also an advocate for quality Latinx lit for kids.

What I especially love about Celia’s debut is that, like a good zine, she puts pieces of a girl together to give us something that feels completely fresh and new. Maria Luisa (MaLú) is the daughter of a college professor and a musician. She’s a punk rock fan – including Mexican punk rock –  and a kid from a blended heritage.  She’s also a kid who has to move to a new city for middle school because her mom has taken a teaching position in Chicago. Suddenly, MaLu is attending a majority Latinx school, where she’s promptly labeled a coconut – brown on the outside, white on the inside.

This is a sweet and thoughtful novel, deserving of its many starred reviews and accolades.  Moving is never easy for a kid, and Celia handles all the questions about friendship and identity with a wise touch. Along the way, the novel takes us on a fun  journey of discovery about Chicago, about zines, and most of all about music. All told, Celia wonderfully captures the experience of US-born Latinx kids, which is now the typical experience.   If The First Rule of Punk is not yet in your classroom library, you need to order now.

So, to kick off 2018,  Celia agreed to take my readers and me on a photo-tour of the city where she lives, and where her lovely novel unfolds. (This is no small feat in a Chicago winter, people.) Take a look. Makes you want to book a trip this spring…

Welcome Celia!


Chicago, A novel Photo tour

by Celia Pérez

When Malú, the young protagonist in The First Rule of Punk, is forced to leave behind everything that is familiar to her, she can’t imagine ever thinking of Chicago as her home. But it’s hard not to love Chicago. It’s a city made up of diverse, unique, and vibrant neighborhoods and is rich in arts and culture. I know, I sound like Malú’s mom trying to sell you on Chicago, right? How about a little photo tour of the city as it appears in The First Rule of Punk instead? I pulled inspiration from several places and neighborhoods. Here are some of the ones included in the book.

One of the locations people often ask about, with the hope that it really exists, is Calaca Coffee. Unfortunately, Calaca isn’t a real place, but it was inspired by two coffee shops that are. The inside of Calaca was modeled after Kopi Cafe in the Andersonville neighborhood. Like Calaca, Kopi has floor seating, short tables with lots of pillows set in a loft area you take a few steps up to. It also has a warm, inviting look and feeling to it that I wanted to be a part of Calaca. But Cafe Jumping Bean in Pilsen has the vibe I wanted for the coffee shop. There aren’t any album covers up on the walls or a paper mache Frida Kahlo greeting you at the door, but it’s funky and colorful, and they always play cool music. It’s definitely the kind of place Malú would fall in love with.

Kopi

 

Cafe Jumping Bean

Speaking of Pilsen, while Malú’s new ‘hood is never named, it was heavily inspired by Pilsen, one of two historically Mexican neighborhoods in the city. Like a lot of Chicago, Pilsen is a neighborhood where past and present come together. There continues to be a large working class Mexican community, but it also has a thriving arts scene of young Mexican Americans creating work that, much like in Malú’s story, combine history and traditional culture with more modern influences. Art is everywhere in Pilsen so keep your eyes open!

Pilsen: El Corazón

 

Pilsen Manhole cover

When Malú first moves to Chicago, her mom takes her all over the city on the L to check out the sights of their new home. These are some of the places they visit.

Pilsen 18th St L

 

Pilsen NMMA

 

Pilsen NMMAL LaCatrina

Lake Michigan! Did you know it’s the only one of the Great Lakes located entirely within the United States? It’s also pretty cold year round, but not as cold as it was when I took this photo!

Lake Michigan

At the Art Institute downtown, Malú sees Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

Seurat!

 

Malú gets her new library card at the Harold Washington Library Center, the headquarters of the Chicago Public Library (and the biggest public library building Malú has ever seen). It’s a beauty!

Library and L

 

They also make a visit to Chinatown for tea and custard buns. Yum!

Chinatown

And finally, yes, Laurie’s Planet of Sound is a real record store. It’s in the Lincoln Square neighborhood right next to a brown line train station. You can find vinyl records, DVDs, magazines, T-shirts, and maybe even a cassette tape or two!

 

Laurie’s New & Used Records CDs & Video

I really enjoyed writing a story set in the Chicago. I was eager to see Malú find her place in her new home. I was excited for her to see the Chicago I love and to maybe learn to love it too. It’s a city of treasures. Some of these treasures are obvious, and others require that you really open your eyes and your mind to see them.

 

This week on twitter, I’ve been tagged with lots of chain-letter questions, which included things like: Who do you write for?  What was your best writer moment? I usually don’t mind being tagged, although the group replies can get crazy.

But it was one fill-in-the-blank question that got me thinking. 2018 will be…

My response?  A year of change.

So, with that, a couple of small announcements.

source: hamline.edu

I made a huge decision to join the faculty at Hamline’s low-residency MFA program for children’s literature. I’m not sure if I start this summer or in January 2019 (in sub-freezing Minnesota!), but I am really looking forward to working with colleagues like Matt de la Peña, Anne Ursu, Laura Ruby, Swati Avasti, Kelly Barnhill, Gene Yang, and the rest of the stellar faculty I plan to take my interest in diverse literature to Minneapolis, so please spread the word among emerging authors who might want to study writing in a safe (if chilly) space. Children’s publishing continues to lag in its base of writers, editors, and other book professionals from traditionally marginalized communities. We especially need authentic stories by authors who have the skills to hold their own. Some of that will happen as a result of programs like the one at Hamline. This is one part of the pipeline that I’d like to help. Note: Scholarships are available. I’ll throw in the hot chocolate.

Candlewick’s little promo card for NCTE

I also want to formally announce that I’ll be introducing myself to middle grade readers next September. For months, I’ve been enjoying writing to my inner 11-year-old. Now, it’s time for book sellers and readers to see if she will connect. It’s so far away, I know, but pre-pub materials are starting to make the rounds. I’ve been writing picture books and YA for a while, so Merci Suarez Changes Gears (Candlewick Press, September 11, 2018) feels like a big adventure for me.  The change in age range means that I’ll need to make acquaintances at places like the now-famous Nerd Camp in Parma Michigan and other venues that are new to me. Merci Suarez first came into my imagination as part of “Sol Painting,” a short story I wrote for Flying Lessons and Other Stories, which was just listed as an SLJ Best Book of 2017. It’s so exciting to see how it bloomed into a big book, and it’s fun to think about what’s going to happen to Merci out in the world.

There are other smaller news items here and there, but you can keep up with my calendar of events for 2018 here.

For now, though, I’ll leave you with some photos of my travels in November that took me from Virginia to New York and then to St. Louis.

 

With Lamar Giles and Ruta Sepetys at VAASL

Lamar Giles, Ruta Sepetys, me, Wendy Shang and Madelyn Rosenberg – and our room full of librarians at VAASL

 

The judging committee for the National Book Award’s prize for Young People’s Literature. Brendan Kiely, Kekla Magoon, Alex Sanchez, Suzanna Hermans, and me. Our deliberations on the morning of the awards ceremony. Would we agree?

We clean up pretty nicely. Here is the judging committee with our significant others and friends.

I adore Erika Sanchez’s book, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Such a pleasure to find her at the ALAN conference in St. Louis after the awards

Yes, I gushed. This is me with Francisco Stork. (Have you read Disappeared? Such a page-turner!)  He was lovely in every way. Thank you Mitali Perkins for introducing us.

The is just one example of the beautiful interior of the St. Louis Public Library, commissioned by Andrew Carnegie. It rivals the Library of Congress and NYPL.

Every once in a while, you get a panel that is silly and wonderful. With Julie Murphy, Neal Shusterman, Angie Thomas, and Brendan Kiely in St. Louis.

XO

Meg

IMG_0908Back in 2011,  I was invited to attend the VEMA conference, an annual gathering of school librarians in my state. The event was held in Richmond that year. I had one book out, Milagros, Girl from Away, and so, like a lot of new authors, I sat at a table by myself for most of the evening while other more seasoned authors signed copies and chatted up fans.

Here’s what I most remember of that night: one school librarian came to talk to me. Her name was Schenell Agee, and she listened patiently as I stumbled through my conversation about my work and diverse voices and Latino themes. She told me that she organized an end-of-year author event at her middle school. An author visit on the last day of school? I thought. Nuts. Still, we exchanged cards, and she told me that she’d keep me in mind for the future.

I expected exactly nothing. I was just grateful that someone had stopped by to ask me anything at all. Eventually, I did go to her school (Metz Middle) – alongside the amazing Floyd Cooper, as I recall. It was a fabulous school visit – not only for how well-organized it was, but also for all it taught me about why it matters to take risks on new writers.

A lot has happened since then. VEMA has changed its name to VAASL (Virginia Association of School Librarians). I’ve got a few more titles under my belt. And Schenell Agee is now the supervisor of professional development and library services for Prince William County. But as I drive to Northern Virginia this Friday to take part in the VAASL conference,  I’ll be taking with me what I learned from her and all the librarians I’ve worked with since then.

With Lamar Giles at the Highlights Foundation where we served as mentors last summer

Here’s what I mean. If we’re serious about changing the landscape of children’s lit by building collections that represent a wide range of experiences, then encouraging new authors – especially diverse ones – is vital.  These are largely new voices, just entering now, who might be sitting at tables by themselves somewhere. There’s no time to waste in getting these authors up and connected. Kids need and deserve to hear from them. The best way to do it is through librarians.

I’m using my workshop time on Friday afternoon to book talk 20 titles by a few favorites but also many up-and-coming Latino authors who had work published in 2017. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s as much as I could read in a couple of months. Book talking isn’t necessarily my best skill, but I’m going to give it a shot. And if I’m lousy at it, as least there’s a giveaway of much of the list. (Many thanks to the publishers who sent me freebies for this purpose.) Librarians are crazy busy, and it’s hard for them to keep up with the huge number of titles competing for shelf space. If I can introduce them to fresh names and faces, I’ll be satisfied. Don’t get me wrong; I definitely want librarians to stock my stuff on their shelves, too. But the truth is that the body of my work represents one voice – and only one. There are parts of the so-called Latino experience that I can’t tell, parts that someone else should.

Mutual fans – with Ruta in Tucson

On Saturday, I’ll be moderating and participating in How Books Connect: Views and Ideas from Five Favorite Multicultural Authors. Joining me will be people who need no introduction: Ruta Sepetys, fresh from adding the Carnegie medal to the list of accolades for her exceptional historical fiction, Salt to the Sea; Wendy Wan-Long Shang and Madelyn Rosenberg, long time buds and now co-authors of the well-received, This is Just a Test, and one of my dearest friends in this business, Edgar Award nominee Lamar Giles (Overturned.) Our plan is to talk the way five friends would over breakfast (except not criticizing runny eggs.) Our focus will be the way we use our books to tell stories of varied people in a way that combats erasure or stereotype.

Wendy and Madelyn about to take the stage at this year’s National Book Festival in Washington, DC

So, if you’re a school librarian heading to Chantilly, I hope to see you this coming weekend. You can check out the full roster of events here.  Some amazing speakers are coming, and I’ll be sitting in on as much as I can!

 

Hola gente –

I’ll spare you my thoughts on what’s going down in Puerto Rico with the disaster relief effort. There’s no need to start the week with bile.

Instead, I’ll concentrate on the better news. Latinos across all areas of publishing have banded together to create an auction that will benefit the relief effort.  (You can follow the news at #PubforPR.)

Bidding starts Monday, October 2, 2017 at 9 am.

So, if you’re looking for signed books, author visits, manuscript critiques, advice on your publicity efforts, etc, please consider bidding on an item.  You could get a bargain, for sure, but more importantly,  you’ll definitely be helping fellow citizens in need.

The link to the auction is here:

Thanks.

 

I’m back home after a month of coast-to-coast book travel which ended this past weekend in the best way possible. I hung out with English teachers at the Arizona Teachers of English conference and then drove up I-17 for my first-ever trip to The Grand Canyon.

Now I get to do bookish things for a month right here in my home state of Virginia. (It’s not the wide open west, but it’s gorgeous here, especially in the fall.) Whether you’re a young reader or adult, a reader or a writer, there’s something for you.

September 27, 2017, 6 pm, Chop Suey Books, Carytown, Richmond, VA. Join me and members of our local ACLU as we talk about censorship during Banned Books Week. Are you remembering to celebrate it?  Now more than ever, we need to stand up for critical reading.

October 6, 2017, Visiting Riverside High School in Leesburg, VA, where Lauren McBride and her fellow librarians and teachers are doing an incredible job of preparing the Rams for my visit. Looking forward to talking all things Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and Burn Baby Burn.

October 7, 2017, The YAVA Book and Author Party. Richmond Public Library, 101 East Franklin,  offers you a chance to party for an afternoon with Virginia’s YA authors. Food, prizes, and a lot of silliness.

October 13 – 15, James River Writers Conference at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Have you registered?  I’m doing a master class on writing characters on Friday (held at the Richmond Public Library) and would love to see you.  Then I’ll be part of panels and basically learning alongside everyone else at our annual literary hoe down. Not to be missed – especially if you can slip off to see the Richmond Folk Festival on Sunday, too!

October 19 -21, 2017 Virginia Children’s Book Festival. It’s a star-studded lineup (see for yourself) in one of the most scenic parts of our state. Held at Longwood University, the VA Children’s Book Fest is the perfect serene spot to meet some of our country’s top authors while you roam around Longwood’s beautiful campus. Check out their graphic below. Can you guess some of the writers who are coming?