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Traitor Angels: How motherhood helped Anne Blankman tackle Milton and Galileo in a YA novel

I have a new neighbor –  and it’s none other than the fabulous YA author, Anne Blankman!  Anne, a former youth services librarian, is the author of three historical novels for teens, including her latest –  Traitor Angels – starred by Kirkus.

 I invited Anne to post on writing the strong girl in history – and how she manages to tackle even the most sophisticated content so that teen readers can relate. Milton’s Paradise Lost? No problem… Here’s Anne Blackman.


 

Anne and Kirsten in Edinburgh, ScotlandMy daughter was six months old when she gave me the courage to write. Yup, you read that correctly. Although I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid, as an adult I couldn’t find the courage to “put myself out there.” Once I’d had my daughter and the first few sleep-deprived foggy-minded months had passed, though, I found myself gazing at her tiny, perfect face and knowing I wanted to be a good role model for her—which meant I had to stop surrendering to fear. I needed to start writing.

y648Fast-forward a few years and two books later, and it was time for me to start drafting my third novel, the YA romantic historical adventure Traitor Angels. The idea had been growing in my mind for a decade, ever since I took a college course on English poet John Milton.

One day in class I noticed something strange about the poem we were studying. Milton’s famous epic, Paradise Lost, is supposed to be about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—but Milton alludes to one character who shouldn’t be there: Galileo, one of the most well-known scientists in history. How weird, I thought. I wondered if Milton had included Galileo as some sort of cryptic message to readers. When I later learned that Milton had secretly met Galileo after the latter had been sentenced to house arrest by the Italian Inquisition, I began daydreaming about the men’s possible conversations. From these initial questions, Traitor Angels grew into an adventure that includes a scavenger hunt stretching across Restoration Era England, clues concealed in literary masterpieces, a fierce girl skilled in weaponry, a mysterious Italian scientist, and a conspiracy that, if it got out, could shake the foundations of civilization.

It took me a long time to write this story. One of my biggest stumbling blocks was the main character: Elizabeth, the fictitious sixteen-year-old daughter of John Milton. I wanted her to be a strong character, but mid-seventeenth century customs and Puritan culture were working against me. How, I wondered over and over, could I make Elizabeth a gutsy girl who would resonate with modern readers? It was easy enough to put a sword in her hands, but what else could I do?

Once again, my daughter inspired me. At the time, she was four years old and fascinated with the night sky. “Can I stay up late to look at the stars?” she begged me and her dad. We laid on lawn chairs in the backyard, watching stars wink into life overhead. As I saw my daughter’s eyes widen with delight, I knew I had figured out how to make my Puritan protagonist a “strong” heroine: Her true strength would live in her mind. She would want to be a scientist—a revolutionary ideal in the mid-1600s.

Tower of LondonLater that summer, my husband, daughter, and I flew to the United Kingdom so I could speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. We traveled throughout England, visiting the city of York where I had once lived and walking the streets of London where my main character had walked. Throughout it all, I watched my daughter’s reactions: her fearlessness when she clambered onto the lion statues in Trafalgar Square, her interest in the ravens flying across the grounds of the Tower of London, her joy as she ran up and down the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This was who I wanted Elizabeth to be—someone who’s brave enough to be herself, no matter who’s watching. Someone who studies what fascinates her, regardless of whether it’s deemed “appropriate” for her gender. Someone who loves the mystery and beauty of the stars.

 

Traitor Angels is in bookstore tomorrow, May 3, 2016

Watch the trailer:

Other books by Anne Blackman:

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¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Pura Belpré!

Pura Belpré storytelling at La Casita Maria community center in East Harlem

Pura Belpré storytelling at La Casita Maria community center in East Harlem

This week marks the birthday (as far as historians can tell) of Pura Belpré, New York City’s first Latina librarian after whom the esteemed award is named. The Pura Belpré award was established in 1996 and celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. So you see, it’s time to kick off this year-long party!

Bright air balloonsTo honor this special day, I’ve invited guest blogger Dr. Marilisa Jimenez Garcia of Hunter College. She is a passionate advocate of Pura Belpré’s legacy and studies issues pertaining to Latino children’s lit. Here Dr. Jimenez Garcia examines the lasting impact of an author visit – and how it led to her own interest in this fascinating librarian.


9780440404859As a child, one of my favorite book series was Kids of the Polk Street School by Patricia Reilly Giff. I am almost certain I found the series by looking through my sister’s books. She was three years older, cooler, and always had the best books. She was beyond the little frogs and cats learning to dress themselves and brush their teeth in the books I read. Her books had full-blown characters that went to school, got into trouble, and made plans for the future—things I found much more intriguing. I know now that my love for these books was greatly due to Giff’s ability to engage me as a young reader.

One day my mother found out that Giff was going to be at a local library in Long Island. My mother usually took us to local libraries to rent videos and take out books. She knew that taking her girls to see one of their favorite authors would be a special treat.

Patricia Reilly Giff would go on to receive the Newbery Honor medal in 2003

Ms. Giff would go on to receive the Newbery Honor medal in 2003

I remember sitting in the library that day. The chairs were set up differently, and everyone was much more excited than usual. Giff spoke to us like a friend, and she read from one of her books. Afterward, she promised to stay after her talk and sign books. I saw it as a golden opportunity to ask a question.

This was a big step for me since I was a relatively shy child—waiting until I felt I could trust the environment. We had moved from Puerto Rico only the previous year, and I had only recently gotten used to English. Once I started speaking it, I couldn’t stop, but you had to be just the right person for me to open up. I had also gotten used to people thinking I couldn’t speak English and brushing me off. Sometimes I went along with it out of pure exhaustion with trying to explain where I was from. Honestly, it was quite a lot to have to negotiate as a six-year-old.

Marilisa and her book-loving mom on the doorstep of La Casa Azul

Marilisa and her book-loving mom on the doorstep of La Casa Azul

Mami helped me walk to the front of the room with my copy of Polk Street. Giff asked me my name and where I was from. I didn’t mind telling her. “My name is Marilisa, and I am from Puerto Rico.” Giff told me that my name was beautiful which confirmed my feelings about her awesomeness. She then began to dedicate my copy of Polk Street: “To Marilisa.” She spoke with Mami about going to the library. Mami told her that I loved her books.

I realized that we were about to leave, so I knew it was time for me to ask my question. “You know, maybe you should write a book about a little girl named Marilisa?” I said. Giff looked at me and smiled, saying, “Yes, that sounds like a great idea.” I was so serious about the whole thing that I began to tell her how the story should go. It would be a regular story like those I had read in Polk Street, except there would be a character named Marilisa, she would be fabulous, and she had to own a horse. That last part was imperative. Giff nodded her head, and I left believing that we had just concocted a plan.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 11.36.43 AMLooking back at this moment, I realize now what I, as a child, was trying to say to a renowned author. “Do you think you could write more books with people like me in them? You see, because I keep reading all these books at the library, and they are wonderful, but I just don’t seem to exist in any of them. I realize I must use my imagination, but I just know that there is room in your imagination for someone like me.”

Years later, I would be in another library looking for reflections of my culture. This time it was 2008 and I was in Gainesville, Florida at the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida. I was a Ph.D student looking for a research project that utilized the archives. I had just had an ugly incident at a local store where someone who heard me speaking to Mami on the phone in Spanish had told me to “go learn English.” I remember thinking, “Wow, here I am teaching a course in English literature. I did a program in British literature at Oxford. I am in a Ph.D program in English, and here I am again, being told that I need to speak English.”

03_Perez and Martina- LP Front Cover_70dpi.previewAt the Baldwin, I wondered what would happen if I typed “Puerto Rico” into the catalogue. The collection was meant to reflect American culture. Immediately, the name Pura Belpré came up on my screen. “Oh great, something new,” I thought to myself. I found a catalogue entry of Perez and Martina published in 1932. “Wait…1932,” I said. “Why is this the first time I hear about this?” I discovered that librarian Pura Belpré had spent her life advocating for books for Latino/a children, and I had never seen them on the shelves. Actually, I had never read a Latino/a author in school or in college. And even though Pura Belpré is the namesake of an award, few know who she was or that she wrote books. My doctoral education was marked by this moment, and my life really took a turn that would lead to my writing on Belpré, and ultimately the history of Puerto Rican literature for youth in the United States.

Marilisa and Meg at NCTE 2015 in Minneapolis

Marilisa and Meg at NCTE 2015 in Minneapolis

As a child, and even as a young woman, I didn’t know that I was looking for books that reflected me. I didn’t know that I was looking for ways to articulate what I felt when I felt nonexistent in American culture. I think this is why my work in this area is more than just a research project. It is a question I have been asking for a long time. “Could you write a story about a girl named Marilisa?” This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Pura Belpré Medal. Along with other authors, librarians, and scholars, it is my sincere wish that we would take the time to learn more about Pura’s life and writing. Hopefully, all Latino/a children can know that there are people and stories that have worked to reflect their histories and cultures in books.


 

Marilisa_Jimenez-GarciaMarilisa Jimenez Garcia is a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College, CUNY. Her dissertation, “Every Child is Born a Poet: The Puerto Rican Narrative within American Children’s Culture” (2012) won the 2012 Puerto Rican Studies Association Best Dissertation Award. She is an NCTE Cultivating New Voices Among Scholars of Color Fellow. Look for her contribution (“The Pura Belpre Medal: The Latino/a Child in America, the Need for Diversity, and Name-branding Latinidad’) in Prizing Children’s Literature (Routeledge 2016) by Kenneth B. Kidd and Joseph Thomas (ed.) 

twitterFollow Marilisa on Twitter @MarilisaJimenez

Learn more about Marilisa’s research 


More Pura Belpré news:

Check out this video trailer!  Buy here from Centro (Center for Puerto Rican Studies)

alaac16Coming to ALA in June?  Join in the 20th anniversary party to honor Pura Belpré’s memory and the many books and authors who have been selected over the years! Sunday, June 26, 2016, 1 – 3:30 PM. Free with your conference fee!

Want to help preserve Pura Belpré’s legacy?  Join REFORMA as a community supporter!

Introduce young readers to Pura Belpré with The Storyteller’s Candle by Lucia Gonzalez and illustrated by Lulu Delacre

Add winners of the Pura Belpré medals to your school or personal collection.

Meet the Enchanting Margarita Engle

11193381_392733620920999_5592796247599447170_nFor more than two decades, Margarita Engle has produced award-winning work for children of all ages. Among her many distinctions, she is a multiple recipient of the Pura Belpré medal, the Américas Award, and the Jane Addams Award. She is also the first Latina author to have earned a Newbery Honor Award for her 2008 novel-in-verse, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom.

enchanted-air-9781481435222_hrMargarita has long been known for impeccable research and thoughtful books that shine new light on figures in history. But her new project goes inward. Her memoir-in-verse, Enchanted Air (Simon and Schuster,) arrives in book stores this week. Here at the dawn of the United States’s new relationships with Cuba, Margarita tells us about her book, her own relationship to Cuba, and what it means to write from the heart. 

***

When we speak of reciting poems “by heart,” we mean “from memory.”

That is because memories live in the heart, in emotions, in a past that remains swirled together with the present and future. Memories are the one place where time is defeated by love.

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Margarita and her mother

Writing about one’s own childhood is a process of writing by heart. There are no guidelines, no patterns to follow, no research to depend on, no papery or digital maps of the mind. When I decided to write ENCHANTED AIR, Two Cultures, Two Wings, all I had was my own memories, and the emotions they still contain, long after adulthood has made an unusual childhood seem like someone else’s strange, impossible life.

I wrote this memoir in the form of free verse—and in present tense—in order to bring the memories back to the surface, an experience I have always dreaded, and never thought I would want to share in public, where I am guaranteed to cry when I read the poems out loud.

My reasons for writing a memoir are various, depending on what the reader brings to my pages:

Enchanted Air is a celebration of the role of travel in a child’s education.

Enchanted Air is a plea for peace and family reconciliation.

Enchanted Air is an act of empathy for stateless people.

Enchanted Air is a true story meant to speak directly to bicultural children, and to the adults who try to understand us.

Yes, I do mean ‘us,’ not ‘them,’ because with respect to this aspect of childhood, I still carry it around inside my heart, like a series of linked poems. Bicultural children can feel divided or doubled, claiming both the daily self and the invisible twins we turn into when we cross the border between our two parents’ homelands.

I am not a typical Cuban-American, and I don’t presume to speak for those who are. I am neither a refugee nor an exile. As the California-born daughter of an American father and Cuban mother, I was blessed with the chance to visit relatives on the island both before and after the revolution. Now, as Enchanted Air goes into print, I worry about how it will be perceived in Miami, but it is my own true story, my only true story, the first time I have tackled a post-revolutionary topic in any of my books for young readers. I hope they will accept it in the spirit in which it is offered, as a testament to that very word: HOPE.

Dr. Jamie Naidoo, Teresa Mlawer, Margarita Engle, Adriana Dominguez, Lila Quintero Weaver (front), Laura Lacámara, me, and Irania Patterson

Dr. Jamie Naidoo, Teresa Mlawer, Margarita Engle, Adriana Dominguez, Lila Quintero Weaver (front), Laura Lacámara, me, and Irania Patterson

Check out SCBWI from the art director’s view

Guiseppe Castellano

Guiseppe Castellano

A while back, I had the pleasure of being on the SCBWI faculty in Atlanta where I met Guiseppe Castellano, Art Director for Penguin Random House.

I’ve been making a habit of hanging out at illustrator sessions these days even though I have absolutely zero skill in the visual arts. (Why God, why?) I go for the same reason I like to see dance performances: to be amazed by the talents of other people and to broaden my own toolbox for storytelling. There’s a lot to be learned about narrative if you strip out words. You learn to see, I think, how to use negative space – what is NOT said – to your advantage.

Anyway, Guiseppe is offering some good advice on his blog about how to make the most of your SCBWI experience, and he includes thoughts from a range of spiffy speakers, like Arthur Levine, Pat Cummings, and others. I’m in there, too, speaking on how to make the most of both serving as faculty and as an attendee.

Check him out and follow him on Twitter @pinocastellano.

Happy reading!

 

An audio documentary on migrant deaths on our border

logoCatherine Komp, radio producer at Virginia Currents on NPR (locally WCVE 88.9 FM,) recently sent me the audio documentary below. Created by her colleagues for a show called Making Contactit examines migrant deaths on our borders.

A look at migration through  magical realism Finalist International Latino Book Awards, 2014

A look at migration through magical realism
Finalist International Latino Book Awards, 2014

When I was writing The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind, I struggled many times as I wrote scenes of unspeakable violence.   Should I write such gruesome things for young people?  Was it necessary or gratuitous?

In the end, I chose to include the awful details, leaning toward telling fiction as honestly as I could.

I hope you’ll carve out a little time to listen to the audio. January ushers in a new Congress and a fresh immigration battle. The debate will be heated on both sides, a healthy – if painful – exercise. What I continue to ask is that we remember that, in the end, we are talking about people, about human beings, and about the ethics of addressing suffering.

Five Questions for Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander’s latest middle grade novel, The Crossover, stole my heart this summer. It’s a novel-in-verse about two brothers – both basketball phenoms – and what threatens to pull them apart. At its heart, this powerful book is about family, young men, and the choices we make as we grow up – all all told in an irresistible, thumping  style. Kwame will be speaking at the James River Writers Conference,  which is one of my favorite conferences each year. Here Kwame joins me for a quick taste of what he’ll bring to conference-goers. We talk dialogue, why poetry makes sense for boys, and the one thing he’s learned about the writing life.

 

Photo by Joanna Crowell (2)1. The dialogue in He Said, She Said is absolutely amazing in evoking character. How do you go about crafting dialogue? What advice would you give writers about the line between authentic sound and going too far?

Yeah, I took some chances with the dialogue in HSSS. It took a minute to commit to the language and style of the characters, but once I did, it was ON! I work with young people, through my Book-in-a-Day program. So regularly, I am interacting with them over lunch, teaching poetry, making jokes, and eavesdropping on their conversations. I am very perceptive (and nosy), so I stole a lot of what I heard, felt, participated in. Also, I try to remember how my friends and I kicked it back in the day.

I think that when you’re writing for young people, the trick is to not TRY to write like young people, but rather, put yourself in the classroom, in the lunchroom, in that experience, and write like YOU. There’s a kid in you, just remember what made you smile, laugh, cry, ponder, wonder, wander. Be real and authentic to yourself, and the sound will come across authentic. Of course, you still gotta make it interesting, ‘cause nobody cares that you’re being authentic if you’re boring.

True story: While I was writing, I would go to urban dictionary to come up with cool, clever words to insert. When I’d go back and read it, it just sounded unreal, uncool, suspect. Eventually, I wrote what sounded good and right to me, and I went with that.

CrossoverCover2. The Crossover, your 17th book, is a novel in verse, with themes that would be strongly appealing to boys. Was writing in verse a risk in your opinion? What are the pluses of writing in verse for you? What are the challenges?

In fact, it wasn’t a risk at all. Far too often, as writers, as teachers, we fear poetry. It probably has a lot to do with the agony with which we were taught it growing up. In my opinion, it’s the easiest thing for young people, especially boys, to grasp: It’s short, it’s rhythmic, and there’s a lot of white space. The fact that it packs a lot of emotion and feeling is just the coolest byproduct. As it relates to The Crossover, I felt that poetry would mirror the energy, the movement, the pulse of a basketball game the best. Want to get reluctant engaged with reading and writing, read them Nikki Giovanni, teach them haiku, plan an open mic, let them be firsthand witnesses to the power of accessible, relatable poetry. Recently, a kid I met at a book event told me, “I opened up The Crossover, and was like, ughh, these are poems. But then, I started reading them, and I couldn’t put it down. It was like good poetry, and it told a story. The best thing ever.”

 

3. So often in middle grade and young adult fiction, we find parents who’ve dropped the ball (sorry for the pun). One of the things that struck me about The Crossover is that it celebrates family, including involved and loving parents. Can you tell us about that decision and why it made the most sense for you?

Hey, the first inclination was to somehow get the parents out of the story. That would have been easy, but I wanted to try something different. Once I started marinating on my childhood, my middle school years, I remembered the woes and wonders of my parentals. Of course, once I decided to keep them around, I couldn’t just have a loaded bullet in the chamber. I had to fire it. For me, the story exploded when I did this. I had so many new and exciting literary choices to make. And, that was a fun part of the writing process. I guess I tried my best to mirror the life of a middle school boy as best I could, and you can’t do that without an authentic familial environment. Oh, and also, it gave me a chance to sort of depict my family life, in particular the life of a humorous and handsome dad (smile).

4. The life lessons through basketball never feel heavy-handed. I wondered which of those lessons is the most meaningful to you?

I remember taking an advanced poetry class with Nikki Giovanni, and being told that my poetry was too didactic. That kind of stuck with me, and I’ve been very aware of those tendencies in my writing, because I am a big fan of offering meaning and messages in my writing. I mean the impetus for writing He Said She Said was really to share one BIG message (or maybe two), and it was quite challenging to make it a PART OF the story, but not THE STORY.

The beauty of poetry is that because of its conciseness, because of metaphor and simile, because of line breaks, because of rhythm and rhyme, you are generally more reflective and inspirational, and less didactic. I had so much fun writing the Basketball Rules, and my favorite is #3, the one about not allowing others expectations of you to limit your aspirations. I was taught this as a child, and I believe it now. Especially in my writing career. If I let the number of NOs, the plethora of “Your book is just not that good” emails, define me, I’d be in a not so pleasant place. I’m a Say Yes person, and that’s how I move through the world.

5. Finish this phrase for me. One thing that I’ve learned in my writing life is…

…there are going to be some NOs, perhaps many NOs (I got 29 for The Crossover alone) out there, and you’re going to be disappointed, but if you believe you’ve written a good book (and your spouse confirms this when she sees you pouting), then you’ve got to keep it moving. Know that it’s important to get all the NOs out of the way, so that the YES can get through. All it takes is one (and after 29 rejections and five years, mine came)!

Photo byJoanna Crowell7. What are you working on next?

Now I have to put my pen and paper where my mouth is. Over the next four years, I have eight books coming out. Whoa! Right now, I am working on a new novel-in-verse and a second YA novel. It’s a little overwhelming. So much so, that I called my mentor, and said, “Is there such a thing as overkill, or overexposure.” She replied, “Not for a writer, Kwame. Not for a writer.”

Oh, and recently, in the middle of all these projects, my friend Lois Bridges at Scholastic, asked me to contribute to her anthology on the Joys of Reading. My answer, of course, was YES!

 

ConferenceLogo2014smallerKwame Alexander will be appearing at the James River Writers Conference on Saturday, October 18, 2014. Catch his sessions on poetry and prose romance across the genres.

 

 

 

My writing process is a mess and other confessions

Blog tour is the phrase of the day. I’m also on Latinaish today (April 21) talking about diversity and how all kids connect with stories.

But my own little blog is also a stop on the My Writing Process Blog tour.My friend, Maya Payne Smart, asked me to join.

maya-head-shotBy way of introductions, I should tell you that Maya is the first lady of VCU basketball. But I’ve known Maya as a compassionate friend, a fellow writer and as a thoughtful community supporter. Her blog specializes in business, travel and lifestyle journalism. Some highlights from her bio. “Her articles have appeared in Black Enterprise, CNNMoney.com, ESSENCE, Fortune Small Business and numerous other business and consumer publications. She earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in social studies from Harvard University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.” She writes about dynamic women and the pursuit of happiness, meaning and productivity at MayaSmart.com.

So, on to notes on my process:

What am I working on? 

BellaAbzugLine2011-1x1 copyRight now, I’m working on a YA novel set in 1977 in NYC. It explores the insanity of the city at that time and secret violence in families. The main character is 18-year-old Nora López. Feminism, mental health, serial killers, drugs, looting. Everything you could ask for in a work for young readers. (Yikes.) It’s due to my editor on May 1. Keep me in your thoughts because this is going to require some divine intervention.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?  

The most defining characteristic of my books is that I always center my novels on the journey of strong Latino characters. The other characteristic is that I like to write fiction that dignifies young women by naming their experience as it is and celebrating all it takes to grow up strong.

Why do I write what I do?

I write Latino characters because there are so few being published and because it pains me to see Latinos reduced to stereotypes in books and film. I write YA because writing for young people is hopeful and because it forces you to be painfully honest. I write about girls because the real girls I know are powerful and kick-ass, and they deserve books about something more than falling in love with boys.

How does my writing process work?

It’s a mess. No outline. Nothing but gut instinct about the characters and their problem. This is the most inefficient way you can possibly write, but it is also very genuine in that you meet the characters and their problems as they naturally arise. I can’t say I recommend it as a strategy, but it really is how I compose.