This Friday, I’ll be trekking back to DC for another happy occasion. For starters, I will be visiting the Library of Congress for the first time, one of country’s most beautiful buildings. But even better is the fact that I’ll be there for the Américas Awards. Established in 1993 by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs, the Américas Award honors outstanding fiction for children that offers realistic portrayals of Latin American culture.This year’s winners are Monica Brown and illustrator Julie Paschkis, for their lovely picture book Pablo Neruda, Poet of the People (Henry Holt, 2011); and Margarita Engle for her novel in verse, The Hurricane Dancers (Henry Holt, 2011). I have been an admirer of their work for a long time, and it’s exciting to be able to join in honoring them.
I got a chance to ask Monica some questions in preparation for the big day – pretty amazing considering what she’s up to. She’s just back from a trip to Peru, on the cusp of pubbing a new picture book, and (of course) frantically packing.
How did you turn to writing and literature? Were you always passionate about books and story? What were the books and stories that inspired you as a child?
I’ve always loved books, of all sorts. As a young child I like everything—Dr. Suess, ghost stories, and National Geographic books. As a teenager, I can honestly say books helped me survive adolescence. I entered college a declared English major at 17, and have built my career around words—first as a journalist for an American-owned newspaper in Guadalajara, then as a graduate student and then professor and scholar of Latino/a and Latin American literature, and finally, as a children’s book author.
Your nonfiction picture books have covered a wide range of personalities, from the very famous (such as Salsa Queen Celia Cruz) to Luis Soriano, a man delivering library books by mule in Colombia. How do you decide who or what will make a good subject for a picture book? Are there criteria to help you make a strong selection? What, for example made Pablo Neruda a good choice for young readers?
I write about those that inspire me in different ways. In addition to the folks mentioned above, for example, Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez are my civil rights heroes, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez my favorite novelist. Choosing to write about Pablo Neruda was lovely, because his poems are so moving and his subjects so appealing to children. I also appreciated how he spoke out about worker’s conditions in his country, at his own personal risk. Waiting for the Biblioburro (Random House, 2011) was inspired by Luis Soriano, but it is actually work of fiction. I wanted to explore the life of Ana, a fictional character who is inspired to write because of the “biblioburro” and all the stories it brings.
Julie’s illustrations for Pablo Neruda: The Poet of the People(Henry Holt 2012) are stunning. Do you have a favorite image or spread?
Every single one! Seriously, I love Julie’s work and the ways she incorporated Spanish words into the art. When she found out she was going to illustrate this book, she actually traveled to Chile to see the very places that inspired Pablo Neruda.
She’s not the only fabulous illustrator you’ve worked with, of course. Rafael Lopez has partnered with you (My Name is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz), as well as Joe Cepeda and John Parra, among others. What is your favorite part of seeing your work interpreted visually?
My favorite moment of the entire picture-book process is the day I first receive/see the final, painted art. It is always such a joy to see the way my words have been interpreted and brought to life. I consider Rafael, John, and Joe brilliant artists, as well as very dear friends, so it makes working with them all the more special. John Parra and I have two books together, and Rafael and I have a 2013 book forthcoming! We published our first book together, and we are excited about Tito Puente, King of Mambo (HarperCollins 2013)!
How would you compare the challenges and joys of nonfiction picture book vs fiction, such as Marisol MacDonald Doesn’t Match? Does one feel easier or more enjoyable to you than the other?
I would say that neither are easy and both are joyful. At this particular moment I’m enjoying writing fiction very much—in particular the character of Marisol McDonald. She will have a new book in 2013—Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash. For the Marisol books, I’ve drawn from my own childhood, so I suppose the lines between fiction and nonfiction are not so clear after all!
You are, of course, at the forefront of an exciting group of Latino authors producing work in English and in bilingual formats for young readers. What are your thoughts on the responsibilities of multicultural authors as a group, particularly as it applies to social justice?
I hope to contribute to a more socially just society both in my personal and professional writing life. I have been given a wonderful education and many opportunities to share my vision and voice and participate fully in our democracy. As a teacher, writer, and citizen I hope my work supports others doing the same. I also believe those of us who have a public forum have even more responsibility to those whose voices are often overlooked or silenced.
You are just back from Peru. Tell us about your trip!
I’ve just returned from Peru, the country of my mother’s birth, where I was a guest of the U.S. Embassy there. It was a truly amazing, humbling trip. I did numerous events over five days—in Lima, Arequipa, and Puno. I counted seven flights in seven days in fact!
I was a featured author at the Arequipa International Book Fair. I visited impoverished elementary schools in each city; I gave public talks; and I offered several teaching workshops while I was there. It was awesome to meet so many beautiful children and teachers and each and everyone was excited about literature! Only a week before I left, I put a call out to my friends and fellow Latino children’s authors, and they came through. Together, we donated many books to schools that wouldn’t otherwise have them. The students loved them!
I ended a wonderful week by spending a few days with my family in Peru—many of whom I hadn’t seen in years and years. The other thing that made the trip special was that I was able to bring my teenage daughter Isabella, who celebrated turning 15 in the Lima airport. Quinceañera!