Newbery award winner and New York Times bestselling author

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Strap on some literary walking shoes for a new class at University of Richmond

angela_leeperMeet Angela Leeper, the Director of Curriculum Material Center at the University of Richmond, a native Virginian who relocated to Richmond four years ago. Turns out, that’s great news for our city’s literary scene. Angela has served on YALSA‘s prestigious Printz Award and Morris Award Committees; reviews children’s and YA lit for BooklistKirkus, and BookPage; and is currently collaborating with educators across the state to create the Virginia Readers’ Choice for high school.

Since moving here, she’s not only been absorbing Richmond’s  history, but as a children’s and young adult literature specialist, she’s reached out to local authors, too. This January, she’ll combine both those interests in a course for educators who love kids books, local history – and walking. Children and YA in RVA, a reading and walking tour of children’s literature in our city, will be offered at the University of Richmond from January 22 – April 30. Registration is open NOW, so hurry. (See below)

It’s not everyone who sees a clear path between kids books and a good pair of walking shoes, but exploring her new city sparked the idea.

“After many afternoons walking in and around RVA, I imagined how exciting it would be to offer a class like this to educators,” she says.  After discovering that no class like it existed, she created  Children and YA in RVA, a professional development course for teachers, librarians, and other educators interested in learning about Richmond’s literature and history – and  bringing that information back to their classrooms.RVA2

The course will include visits from local historians and authors,  including Gigi Amateau, A.B. Westrick and me. When it’s time to hit the streets, award-winning journalist, historian, and certified U of R instructor Alyson Lindsey Taylor-White will lead three walking tours that relate to the class readings. (Walking fans may recognize Alyson as the force behind the popular “Hello Richmond!” course series.)

“While designed as professional development for educators, anyone is welcome to enroll,” Angela tells me. Children and YA in RVA will meet on Wednesday evenings, 5:00-8:00, from January 22 to April 30. (Don’t worry, the class won’t meet over local school systems’ Spring Break!)

walking-shoes-clipartshoe-prints-clip-art---vector-clip-art-online-royalty-free-l3klhkmtInformation here: (Select Language Arts and Literacy at the link)

To register for Children and YA in RVA, click here.  richmond2

EE Charlton Trujillo and the FAT ANGIE tour


It’s National Anti-bullying month, so I have a treat for you. E.E. Charlton Trujillo, author of FAT ANGIE is stopping in Richmond this coming week as she continues her cross country book tour.  Here we talk about her  writing and  film-making –  and how,  in the darkest times,  a book can be a kid’s lifeline.

How did you find the seed of the story for FAT ANGIE?

Imagine. Winter. Four foot snow stacks. Below zero temp and the smell of recycled heat in a mom and pop diner in Madison, Wisconsin. I polished off a scrambled egg something kinda breakfast. Rolled the wheel to my iPod Classic right and landed on Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way.”

Something in the shredding of that guitar riff sent me into the what would become FAT ANGIE. I snapped up a pen from a waitress named Grace, grabbed a napkin and connected thought to world.

UnknownNow, this is what you gotta understand. That song never appears in the book but the energy of note to lyric to note ignited the hostile confrontation, humiliation and revelations of the book. I could see the beginning and the end and it was such a fantastic high. If I ever bump into Lenny on the street/event, I’m gonna say, “You inspired a book that changes lives. Thanks for ripping that sound beast-pretty.”

You are also a filmmaker, and I could see its influence on this novel. By that I mean references to “beats,” cutaways, vintage TV and film series.  To what extent was that intentional? How would you say that your two art forms intersect in this novel…and just generally as a writer?

Remember this little baby?

Remember this little baby?

I’ve been a filmmaker since I was four years-old. I’d snap off images on a Kodak 110 camera, get them developed and then flip them between my fingers to imagine motion.  But I was also a writer at that age. No scrap of paper was safe. Toilet paper beware!

While it wasn’t intentional, the mesh of pop culture and cinema somehow continued to flow in FAT ANGIE. From the inception of the story, I knew how under the microscope Angie felt by the media because of her missing sister. The fact that an event so tragic had been sensationalized almost as if to garner higher ratings felt sickening and yet true to life. Also, everything about Angie is dated which adds to the sort of out of sync character that she is.

Writing novels and making films feed one another. The novels make me a more concise screenwriter and director. Also, being cinematically inclined allows me to move 360 degrees in the space of my novels. I look for essential details that are the truth of that world. So I guess the answer is a little chicken and egg. For me, the two art forms exist simultaneously in a creative chaotic harmony. #LOL. I think you might have wanted a simpler answer.

FAT ANGIE is so layered. One of the pervasive themes, of course, is about the role of rage and grief in both being the victim and the victimizer. What are your thoughts of why young people savage each other – and on why they fall prey?

Let’s lay it out plain: kids can be ruthless. We can speculate if it’s what they see at home, in movies, video games or just how they sprouted into the world. As someone who came from a hard upbringing, played video games and watched all kinds of movies not Disney approved, I still chose not to be a bully. But that was me.

After meeting with some of the “toughest” kids in America on the FAT ANGIE book tour, I’ve seen from the trenches how cruel young people can be to each other. The need to humiliate, taunt/tease those they perceive as weak/spaz/dork/nerd/right/wrong/too poor/too rich … whatever. There is no definition of what doesn’t fit anymore. I remember it being like Anthony Michael Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club.

Now it’s open season on what the Mean Girls or the Jerk Heads think doesn’t fit their definition of belonging.

Life is hard. We know that. When you’re a kid, it feels like the hard parts will never end. Never can be a few weeks, months or as in the case of the recent suicide by Rebecca Ann Sedwick in Florida, a year plus. What gets amplified in these bullied/savaged kids heads has a level of intensity and immediacy that the off switch seems so much more appealing.

But it isn’t. And that’s what I say to kids. They matter. And while I can’t fix their lives, together we can make it better right then in that moment. And that’s life. Moment to moment.

I love the tag line in your trailer “Live Large.”  So I will ask you about going large on the bullying in the novel. The mean girls, the mother, Wang’s comments – all are exceptionally ugly, particularly in reaction to Angie’s weight and to her romantic relationship with KC. What were considerations in choosing to go really large on the bullying vs. focusing on more subtle “knifings” that go on among young people?

This is an excellent question. Simple answer. I didn’t want to pull punches.

Not so simple answer. Sometimes people are cruel. Sometimes we have to confront cruelness without sugar coating.

My first two books were more subtle and that fit the trajectory of those worlds. FAT ANGIE is a “Live Large” existence and the elements of that world have to add up or the truth of the story doesn’t hold. And that’s what it all comes down to. The character’s truth. What exists in their world.

I knew this was an everything and the kitchen plus sink story. Generally, I am overwhelmed by such stories, and find they are poorly written. But here I am saying FAT ANGIE is the exception. I knew it was a risk but this is the complicated, beautiful-ugly world of FAT ANGIE. I don’t get to simplify it to make myself or anyone else comfortable if it’s what kids need to hear.

One of my favorite things about Angie is the letter she is writing to her sister who is presumed dead in Iraq. What are your thoughts on using writing to help us with grief or worry?

BWJNhgACUAASpys.jpg-largeA month from earning my MFA in film and jetting off to Los Angles for my Hollywood dream job, my best friend Amanda Cunningham died in head on collision at the age of 23. A teenager failed to yield at a stop sign. When I talk about Amanda, I say, “Imagine cradling the sun for a moment. That’s what it was like to know Amanda.”

And when she died, a part of me got lost. I ditched said dream job. Became homeless and watched the guys I crashed with snort cocaine and play Grand Theft Auto for twelve hours straight.

During this time, author Pat Schmatz read the first few pages of a story called Prizefighter. She said it wasn’t the best of the samples I sent her, and a fire ignited in me. Just as I was getting ready to work on it, my brother invited me to stay with him. There I could begin to delve into my grief. Most importantly, I could write for ten or twelve hour days. I finished the novel in two months. Less than a year later, it broke a five-year no- win streak to win the Delacorte Dell Yearling Award through Random House.

Unknown-1Writing what is now PRIZEFIGHTER EN MI CASA saved my life.

The book brought me hope. Because in the darkest moment of my entire life, I embraced writing instead of a host of destructive distractions. Writing is freedom. Writing can save!

So, you’ve been on book tour around the country. Can you tell us a little bit about why you took this summer-and-then-some trip to reach kids all over this country? What’s been the biggest surprise on your tour?  The biggest challenge?

The kids that don’t come to book signings are the one’s that really need to have access to my book and to creative mentors. After a connection with a troubled, small-town Texas teen in May, I wondered what would happen if I could empower other kids. Enable them to begin to see their potential. FAT ANGIE has released a few months earlier, and was the perfect conduit for activism.

I gave up my loft, put all my stuff in storage and set out in a rented Ford Focus to literally drive across America to empower young people on the fringe.

Important Fact #829.32

I have a phobia of: cars, traffic, severe weather, heights and flying.

Welcome to the FAT ANGIE book tour and the making of the feature documentary At-Risk Summer. Where “just let it go” quickly became our motto.

images-1As I travel America, I continue to meet with at-risk youth (defined broadly) and workshop with them at no cost to the programs. Yes, zero cost to any at-risk program I meet with. I’m not independently wealthy. I don’t have a corporate sponsor. People have shown me such kindness.

The writing these young people have shared is raw, real and brilliant with voice. Their truth echoes hopes and dreams, pain and loss. They are definitely not the throw away kids many communities see them as. They have infinite potential so long as it is matched with inspiration.

Biggest surprise has been how many people have extended a spare bedroom, a plate of food and shared their stories with me. Not to mention the authors across America (this includes you, Meg) who have allowed me to interview them for the documentary. Nothing feels out of reach.

Biggest challenge is money. It’s really that simple. Getting from points A to B comes with a price tag. Even the cheapest rental car (holler! $9 dollars a day Los Angeles Enterprise), still need gas. I’m nervous about getting though October and the first week of November, but I’m gonna hope for good things!

Where to next? And what are your next projects?

I have stops in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Texas. I’m currently writing three other novels, a screenplay and in post-production on a television pilot. The book tour has inspired me to establish a national organization called Never Counted Out that will connect professional artist with at-risk programs in their own community. The premise is to get artists to donate a minimum of one hour a year to an at-risk program. Fingers crossed I can make all of these things come into fruition!

UnknownEast coast/midAtlantic fans: You can meet EE. Charlton Trujillo in person at Teen ’13 in Richmond, Virginia, on October 17, where she will be a special guest during her book tour. Details here. 

Follow the Fat Angie Tour on Facebook.

“…in the darkest moment of my entire life, I embraced writing instead of a host of destructive distractions.”

James River Writers Conference Spotlight: Elizabeth Huergo

4-300x90About this time of year, I start to perk up with bookish anticipation. The autumn brings us the Virginia Literary Festival (Oct 16 – 20, 2013), anchored in part by the James River Writers Conference. Now in its eleventh year, the JRW Conference is a special treat for the writing community since it gathers nationally-recognized and bestselling authors in our city for three days of fun and learning.

DSC_0193-Huergo-First-ChoiceThis year, I’m especially happy to find debut novelist (and fellow Latina author) Elizabeth Huergo on the impressive roster. Elizabeth is a scholar of literature (receiving her M.A. in 19th-century American Literature and her Ph.D. in British Romanticism from Brown University), and she has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Rhode Island College, American University, and George Mason University. Her novel, The Death of Fidel Perez (Unbridled Books, 2013), is set in modern day Cuba against the eternal question, What if Fidel fell?

Here Elizabeth and I talk about our shared cultural roots and the challenges of conveying the pain and complexities of political history in writing.

You left Cuba as a girl during the years immediately following the Cuban revolution. What had your life been like until then? Where did your family settle in the United States?

Elizabeth and her mother in 1961, weeks before they would leave Cuba

Elizabeth and her mother in 1961, weeks before they would leave Cuba

I was born in May of 1959. My mother and I left Cuba when I was about three years old. My father had to leave about a year before us for political reasons. He lived alone in New York for a year, working, saving, trying to have a place ready for us when we arrived. We arrived in the US with the clothes on our backs, literally; and to a solitude that we were not used to at all. I had lived for those few short years within a nexus of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. And then, they simply weren’t there. The family I had known became voices on a telephone line popping with static or birthday wishes typed out on strips of telegraph paper.

The loss of family, language and culture affected my parents deeply. They had been dropped into a completely alien world, and they had to learn very quickly how to navigate that world. They were apprehensive, lonely, frightened. They tried to shelter me from those feelings, but children are very perceptive about the emotions of the adults around them. It was all quite traumatic, and yet the luxury of being able to stop in order to work through the pain was simply not available. So they set their minds to the task of survival.

Elizabeth's debut novel

Elizabeth’s debut novel

Your debut novel, The Fall of Fidel Perez, follows four main characters over the course of a day during which a rumor of Fidel Castro’s fall from power sweeps Havana. It’s a dark joke, of course, since it’s really a drunk man named Fidel Perez who has actually “fallen.” The novel is certainly not a comedy, and yet you start with this very dark joke that deepens over the course of the book. Can you talk a little bit about that choice?

How do you convey revolution  or exile to an audience that has never felt the blunt force of history’s dislocations? I would define exile not only as a literal dislocation, but as a deeply internalized dislocation, a cataclysmic shift in the very ground of a person’s being. Fidel descends from the Sierra Maestra, symbol and agent of a counter-revolution that itself springs from a nexus of social injustice and foreign colonization. Like so many other people, I lost my homeland, the trajectory of my life, and the lives of my family, inflected permanently.

The tragedy springs from an interminable chain of causes and effects that lie far out of any one individual’s grasp or reach.  And once I was able to see that, the loss of control became funny, darkly funny. Tears became laughter. And the beauty of laughter is that it both acknowledges and transforms the pain, helping us take the next step. Every great dramatic tragedy I can think of has a comic subplot, which suggests that laughter is an integral part of sorrow.

Growing up, as you did, as a girl in a Cuban home, I remember the feeling of longing and regret that seemed to infuse every adult conversation, especially political ones. As I followed Saturnina, Pedro, Justicio, and Camilio, I felt that same sense of nagging regret, regardless of how each character had experienced his/her share of the revolution. How did you go about building each of these characters? Did you begin from their political position, from their personal trauma or somewhere else?  Which was your favorite character to build? Which one, if any, gave you trouble?

I work out from each character’s core and toward plot and theme. Yes, the characters are tormented by regret, which is often what can happen when we look back at our lives. Each character is trying to resolve that sense of regret in some way. Pedro Valle longs for forgiveness; Saturnina longs for her son’s return; Camilo longs to act, to step out of his complacency. Saturnina was my favorite character because her name derives from a story my mother tells about a woman in Remedios who decided one day to put on every piece of clothing she owned and live in the streets.

06043rI travelled to Cuba years ago, and one day, during my visit, as I was walking through l’Habana vieja (Old Havana), I peered into a building covered by very beautiful blue and white mosaic tiles. I didn’t realize, though, that on the other side of the tiled façade most of the building was in ruin.  I peered inside expecting a grand foyer, one more example of the island’s rich architectural history that I could photograph.  Instead I saw the top of a barely intact stairwell, and an old woman sitting in a rocking chair, the morning sky behind her.

I let go of the camera hanging around my neck.  I wanted to apologize, but there was nothing for me to say.  This fragile old woman, a bundle of rags and bone, sat there like an ancient Madonna in a grotto. She nodded at me as if she were giving me permission or forgiving me for the intrusion. I had this deeply mystical experience as I peered up and across that threshold. I named her Saturnina, and she haunted me until I told the story of the history she had lived through, of the wounds history had inflicted on her.

Cuba_Panorama_de_L'HabanaThe entire novel spans a few hours, but it also manages to cover a few hundred years. How do you handle pacing in a novel that has to be exciting both moment-to- moment and as it covers backstory events that occur over centuries?

Carefully! I plotted the transit of the two major characters across the City of Havana very carefully. I had in mind Bloom’s transit across Dublin in Joyce’s Ulysses. I also knew that Pedro Valle would be looking back in search of absolution and Saturnina looking forward in search of love and reunification. So I knew their narratives would be working in counter-point to one another. Then I had to think carefully about scenes, and how the end of one scene might propel the next one.

The research in your novel is extensive. What were the big surprises for you, if any? What proved most difficult?

I read a lot of Latin American history. I also got very interested in historical methodology. Then that got me interested again in the psychology of how we perceive, which got me to comparative mythology and the ways in which different cultures tell basically the same story in different ways. So the most difficult thing to do was to stop reading!

Saturnina and Pedro Valle are telling the same history, and yet they are telling it differently. Both of them are right. The big surprise for me? I had been operating all my adult life on the assumption that there is such a thing as historical progress. The more I read, the more I realized that, yes, there are real technological and scientific advancements, but rarely is there a shift in consciousness, the sort of shift in consciousness that would allow us, the human race, to stop repeating the same acts of violence over and over again.

In my view, there’s no more volatile conversation among Cuban Americans  than politics. Did you feel any pressure as you wrote about Cuban politics and US policies? Were there things you felt cautious to say? For example, you refer to American-based Cubans as thinking of old Cuba as a “utopian diorama.” I can practically hear the protests. What has been the response so far?

You are right, of course; political discussions can be volatile, but that’s true about any group of people that has lived through difficult, life-changing events. Besides, I was not writing my personal political views. I was writing the views of characters who had lived through various phases of Cuban history. There are characters in the novel who are well to the left of center; there are other characters who are well to the right of center. Mostly, though, there are characters trying to understand the meaning of their lives in relation to colonization and revolution.

fidelfingerYou don’t include characters in current day Havana that mourn the supposed fall of Fidel? Why did you make that choice? 

On this point I have to disagree with you. There are voices throughout the novel that express sorrow at the passing of Fidel Castro. There are jubilant voices. There are voices that express terror and confusion. There is one especially sardonic voice at the very beginning that laughs at the death of a “little dictator.”

 What is your hope for Cuba in the coming years?

The idea that there are people who need to be dominated, divided against one another, (either for what is paternalistically referred to as their own good or in the name of economic self-interests), still has the upper hand, even in this new century, and after the bloodiest century in recorded human history.

My hope is that the US will realize that Cuba is a sovereign nation and not a Caribbean outpost, part of its “backyard.” Shutting down Guantánamo and returning that land to its rightful owner, Cuba, would be an important symbol and movement toward that realization.  My hope, too, is for a peaceful revolution, one that leads to greater autonomy and real democracy.

What are you working on now?

I’m almost done with my second novel, Between Ana and Ella, which is a contemporary rethinking of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath from a Latina perspective. The story is set in DC.


Elizabeth Huergo will appear at the James River Writers Conference on Saturday, Oct. 19 and Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013. She will discuss her novel and her thoughts on setting and voice.

Visit  for more information.

Win a copy of the galleys for THE DEATH OF FIDEL PEREZ by leaving a comment on this blog. Winners will be announced after Labor Day.



Q & A with Christina Díaz Gonzalez

Christina Diaz Gonzalez

It’s a pleasure to introduce you to Christina Diaz Gonzalez as we head into the final week of Hispanic Heritage Month. You may remember her from her debut novel, The Red Umbrella. Her follow-up, A Thunderous Whisper, is also historical fiction, this time set in Europe during the Spanish Civil War. Told through the eyes of 13-year-old Ani, the novel shines a light on yet another corner of World War II.

Before we jump into your new novel, I’d like to know a little bit about you. I understand that you were an attorney at one time. Now, you live in Florida and write lovely books that celebrate Hispanic history. How did you go from one career to the other? 

I was a practicing attorney when my kids learned to read.  Watching their love for books grow rekindled my secret, childhood dream of being a writer.  Soon there was no stopping me and I became passionate about writing.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

One of the things I most admire about A Thunderous Whisper is that it brings world history to life for American kids.  You take us to a very specific corner of history (specifically to the Spanish Civil War as it connected to Franco’s relationship with Hitler during WWII. You also introduce young American readers to the Basques. Why did this particular episode in history attract you? 

A series of seemingly unrelated events (spread out over the course of several months) led me to write A Thunderous Whisper.  There was a brief discussion with a friend about Pablo Picasso’s famous painting called Guernica, a renewed interest in my family’s Basque roots, a random photo of a sardinera and my discovery of the events surrounding the Basque children during the Spanish Civil War.

This isn’t your first successful foray into historical fiction.
(The Red Umbrella) was set against the backdrop of the Cuban Revolution.) How did you do your research for this new novel?

I read several primary sources and first-hand accounts by the Basque children who survived the bombing of Guernica.  I was also lucky enough to travel to the beautiful cities of Guernica and Bilbao where I was able to meet the director of Guernica’s Museum of Peace and the president of the Historical Society of Guernica.  Being in Spain and meeting such knowledgeable people gave me an invaluable glimpse into life during the Spanish Civil War.

War is a horror of the adult world, and it’s driven by the clash of ambitions and ideals. Yet this story is told from the perspective of twelve-year-old Ani, who is brought into a spy ring. Were there challenges of representing war through a young person’s eyes? And, since we are talking about Ani, how did you decide that she – a lonely sardine girl, would be your protagonist?

I believe young people are active participants in the world that surrounds them.  Ani, having a parent fighting in the war and facing the imminent danger of attacks, would have a strong sense of the war, but would still be limited in her understanding of the reasons behind it.  As for creating the character of Ani, she actually popped into my brain fully formed and so I credit my writing muse for delivering such a wonderful character to me.

For me, the novel’s poignancy was found in the terrible price that children pay during war. The depressive state of their parents, separations, death. Ani faces all of them yet we never doubt that she will survive. What, in your opinion, was the source of her resilience?

Ani’s resiliency stems from an inner strength and belief that, despite what she’s been told, even a whisper of a girl can make a difference.

Mathias, a young Jewish boy, befriends Ani. They grow very close in the novel, but there is a real shift in their relationship immediately following the bombing. And then, of course, he leaves to do what Ani finds unimaginable. Can you tell us a little bit about how you made decisions about Mathias’s story? (And, for the writers out there, how you kept his story from overshadowing Ani’s? He could have had his own novel!)

I wish I could say that I had crafted Mathias’ story because it fulfilled a great literary plan of mine for his character’s arc, but, truth be told, my characters make their own choices and I just write what they do.  Perhaps it’s because I feel like these characters are real people and so I give them permission to do things that I had not originally planned.  One way to keep some of these strong characters in check (not letting them overshadow my main character) is to maintain the focus on the main character’s perspective and always show how the main character reacts to the actions of others.

Your work is part of a growing body of literature by Latino children’s book authors at a time when the national rhetoric surrounding Latino issues is running high.  What are your thoughts on the role, if any, that Latino literature can make in building bridges of understanding?

First of all, there needs to be more literature that has Latino protagonists.  These books should transcend race/culture and be, at their core, good stories.  We live in a diverse society and children’s literature should reflect that! By having more books with Latino characters we can erase some misunderstandings, give insight to problems/situations and bring people together through the power of stories.

How are you celebrating the publication of the novel these days?

I am celebrating by having a mega-launch party in Miami (if anyone is in town on October 13, please come by Books & Books in Coral Gables at 5 pm – I’d love to see you) and I am participating on a blog tour in October and November. I am so excited to have everyone finally be able to read this book!

Finally, are there new projects in the works?

There are always new projects in the works, but it’s still too early to talk about them. Don’t want to jinx them!

In stores October 9, 2012



To learn more about Christina and her work visit her on the web

Here Come the Américas Awards! Q & A with author Monica Brown

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.

Monica Brown

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?

Illustrated by Rafael López

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!

Teachers at the Centro Cultural Peruano NorteAmericano

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!

Students holding their new prized books in Pachacamac Peru

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!


To learn more about Monica Brown, visit or like Monica Brown, Children’s Author on Facebook.

Hispanidad Meets First Fridays: Helene Ruiz at Art6

from ¡Azucar!

This month you’ll find celebrations of Hispanic heritage in all sorts of corners of the city – and that’s thanks in part to the efforts of Helene Ruiz. The Bronx native lives in Mechanicsville VA these days, but nothing has slowed her commitment to artists, culture and the community.

Before we launch into the quick Q & A, here are two events to keep track of:

Sabor Feminina (Female Flavor) at Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center through November 2. The free show features Ruiz’s Goddesses series, with nods to Cuban Yoruba spiritualism.   Mon – Fri 10 – 7 pm. Saturday 10 am – 2 pm.

¡Azucar! at Art6 Gallery, Oct 5, 5 – 10 pm. Ruiz ushers in First Fridays doing what she does best: gathering artists together to celebrate in one voice. This multimedia event will feature the work of several Latin visual artists as well as the Latin Ballet of Virginia and Cuban percussionist (click to listen) Melena la Rumbera.

Five questions with Helene Ruiz

Helene Ruiz

What’s a nice Bronx girl like you doing in Mechanicsville?

My parents moved to Virginia almost 30 yrs ago. My father passed back in 2001, my mom is getting old and my sister suffers from MS, so I figured, why not move there, help out with the house and help them? After all, art is everywhere anyway! I can always get back and forth to NYC whenever I need, it’s not that far away.

Why did you think it was important to pull together ¡Azucar! in Richmond?

I thought it was important to use art as a means of education on the diversity of Latinos thus hopefully eliminating stereotypical images. Also, in this exhibit, I am dedicating one area to the Orishas in order to show the connections of spirituality and culture to Africa. When the slaves were transported to the islands, they were forced into Catholicism. They worshipped their gods secretly under the Catholic icons since they were not allowed to worship their gods openly.

You met Salvador Dali in 1973! Not many people can say such a thing. Tell us about the experience and how it impacted you as an artist?

I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity to be part of an art class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In one of the life drawing classes, we were asked to sketch a very large model. I was sketching her like she seemed to me, as a large melting candle dripping over the chair. Dali was walking through the classroom looking over the students’ shoulders at their drawings of this model. When he came to mine, he patted me on the shoulder and winked his eye. I, at the time, had no idea who he was. Then the teacher told me OMG! That was Dali! He liked your drawing! This further confirmed my love for surrealism at a young age.

You were the founder of an artist collective called the Urban Individualists. Does that group still exist in New York? Is ¡Azucar! a sample of the arts collective experience? When I moved from New York, the collective kind of scattered all over the USA and internationally as well. However, most still do participate in shows I organize. And, yes! This is a sample of an arts collective experience I would say!

New projects you want to tell us about? If I could slow down this mind of mine it would be weird! lol…but I am certainly thinking of a few proposals for the future! And there will always be ideas for projects, the usual set backs are funding, venues, etc.

Fighting for the Story

This is a new shirt I bought at La Casa Azul last week, a sweet Latino-themed bookstore on 103rd Street in Harlem. How could I resist? It reminded me of the hours I spent as a kid watching Lucha Libre wrestling — that masked Mexican drama. My uncle was a big fan, and my grandmother and I soon joined him. “Do you think it’s real?” Abuela would ask as someone got slammed with a chair. How stupid,  I thought. Of COURSE it’s real.

My shirt says Lucha Libros, of course. Much more civilized — but maybe not. I’m a writer, after all, and as any of us in this business will tell you, you can get sucker punched and slammed with a folding chair at every turn. A lousy review, an unimpressed agent, an editor who says something just isn’t ready. Dios de mi alma, it’s tough.

I’m thinking about all this because in two weeks I’ll be taking you inside the horror with debut author Aimee Agresti whose debut YA novel, Illuminate, has received great reviews. (It’s the first book in a planned Harcourt trilogy.) We’re doing a panel for one of my favorite writing organizations, James River Writers, as part of The Writing Show. Ours is the last Writing Show of 2012, and I’m excited that it’s about writers wrestling. Aimee has agreed to show her manuscript from the early, on-the-napkin stage, all the way to the picky line edits, all in the hope of helping other writers see with their own eyes what to expect.  Along the way, we’ll talk about creating vs. editing, about who gets to weigh in on your work, and how to tell when you’re getting good advice.

If you’re around, please join us for The Writing Show on Thursday, August 30, 2012, 6:30 pm at the Children’s Museum of Richmond. (Come at 6 pm if you’re a member — and you should be — so we can have some wine and cheese before the show!) See you then! (Costumes and masks optional! Ha!)

Want your chance to win a whole year of free admission to The Writing Show?  

Register for the James River Writers Conference before September 1, 2012 and your name will be entered in the giveaway. Great opportunity for some free craft development!

Go to

John Parra and the Art of Libros

If you ask me, it’s a great time to be interested in Latino children’s books, mostly because there’s a strong talent pool – one  that includes John Parra.

John is a tall, quiet guy whose beautiful, award-winning work is well-known in publishing circles. Luckily for the rest of us, it will also be on display and for sale next Saturday at La Casa Azul, a new indi bookstore in Harlem that celebrates Hispanic authors, artists, and readers.  The show is called Infinitas Gracias (Infinite Thanks). I’ll be there to ooh and ah with all his other fans. Mark your calendars and join us.

103 Street, between Park and Lexington.
Take the No. 6

John was nice enough to put down his paintbrush and talk to us  about his work.

You are a long, long way from California, where you grew up. How did you end up in Queens? Has living in t New York impacted your artists’ palette in any way? I ask because I’m from Queens, and I find that the city creeps into my books and stories pretty often, which I love. 

I moved to New York in 2000. I actually drove across the country from California. It took about a week and was a great adventure. The main reason for the move was to do more illustration work in publishing and advertising here.  Plus I always had it in my mind that I would really like to live in New York.  I think the city has influenced my work a bit giving me a more cosmopolitan and sophisticated sensibility but more often than not I am inspired by experiences and memories from back home.


John, me, Joe Cepeda, and Isabel Campoy

You started out doing art for clients like United Airlines, Jeep, etc. What inspired you to make the shift to children’s book illustration?  Which skills transferred and which did you have to develop? 

Illustrating children’s books wasn’t a field I really pursued early in my career. It all started when Theresa Howell, an editor and art director at Northland Publishing/Luna Rising, had seen my work and contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in doing a book. Much of my work already used themes of family, childhood, and Latino culture, plus my color pallet made it a good match for doing a children’s book, so I decided to accept.

The first book was called My Name is Gabriela/ Me llamo Gabriela, written by Monica Brown that tells the story of Gabiela Mistral, a famous poet from Chile, who was the first Latina woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

A wonderful collaboration with Monica Brown


Were there any surprises – good or bad- for you about the world of children’s book illustration? 

One discovery  I was surprised with was how many adults enjoy children’s books. Whether they are parents, librarians, educators, or other, they just seem to love the stories and images as much as the kids. Additionally surprising is how many children’s books have such a rich, open, almost fine art-like, diversity represented in their different writing and illustration styles.

Are there other areas of illustration that you still might like to try? 

I would love to expand into animation. There are beautiful Latino stories that could be told in that medium which would be great!


Yuyi Morales cover

Who are some of your favorite fellow illustrators, especially those working in Latino children’s fiction?  

Too many to name but here goes: Rafael Lopez, Yuyi Morales, Joe Cepeda, David Diaz, Juana Martinez-Neal, Leo Politi, Carmen Lomas Garza, Duncan Tonatiuh, Lulu Delacre, Raúl Colón, and René King Moreno. 

Your work captures Latino culture so well, John. What are some of the choices you make as an artist to make the images immediately recognizable familiar as Latino-centered? Would you say these choices are somewhat unconscious or are you very deliberate? 

I would say both. When I was in art school I was trained with many different styles of painting, from realism, impressionism, abstraction, surrealism and everything in between. It wasn’t until one of my final semesters that I also began to introduce my Latino background and culture into my art. It seems a bit obvious now but at the time this was a big breakthrough for me. I love the richness, diversity, color, people, food, geography, architecture, and history of Latino culture that provided me with such a wealth of visual inspiration in all areas of life I cannot resist.

Have there been projects that were especially difficult to do? In general, how do you get through dry spells in your ideas (if you have any!)

My first book was actually a challenge to start. It took a bit for me to get my sea legs set and be at a happy production level where I was confident in all areas of the work. Things move much smoother these days. Most of the time also I can power through dry spells and difficult spots by sketching and researching as much I can, then I end up sleeping on it and by the next day things always look better and I find my ideas. In the end inspiration is just hard work and stick-to-itiveness.

I’m always amazed at how an illustrator completes a picture book and turns it into something new. How do you first tackle a project when it first comes to you as a manuscript? 

My first step is to read the material thoroughly and get a sense and feel for the characters, story arch, and setting. I then go through an extensive visual search looking for reference images related to the text. Up next, I work on the sketching to develop the characters and place them in various environments. Finally once the sketches are approved I begin the painting process. This is the most fun since it is where all the color comes in and brings everything to life.

Any interest in ever writing your own text? I imagine there are times when you say things like, “Why didn’t the writer do this or that?

I do feel I have a couple really good story lines for children’s books that have been on my mind for a while but just haven’t had the time to them write up. I will have to challenge myself soon on this.

Is there a piece of advice or wisdom you wish you’d had when you were just starting out in this field?

I’m not sure what category this would fall under but learning about The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) was very helpful in understanding and navigating the world of children’s book publishing. Through them you meet other professionals, talk shop, attend workshops, plus it has a wonderful sense of community and caring message to assist all in the field. Many times I am asked, “How does one go about getting a children’s book published?” To which I respond by speaking of my art process, offering my advice and letting them know about SCBWI and its benefits.

Are there any new projects we can look forward to from you?

I just turned in the art for my next children’s book entitled, Round is a Tortilla, due out in 2013. I will start its companion book, Green is the Chile, this fall with an arrival date of 2014. Both books were written by the wonderful author, Roseanne Thong.

This December you can also look for When Thunder Comes, a poetry book written in moving verse by Children’s Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis. The book profiles seventeen civil rights luminaries from around the world, each represented in portraits, showcasing their struggle and dedication to justice, peace, and tolerance. The artwork for the book was a collaborative effort split between four other artists and myself. All three of these projects will be published by Chronicle Books.

Meet Cristina Dominguez Ramirez: RPL’s newest non-shushing Latino librarian

“I don’t do much shushing. In fact, patrons ask me to turn down the volume; I have a strong voice.”

So says Cristina Dominguez Ramirez, an exciting new face at Richmond Public Libraries. She’ll be managing the renovated Broad Rock branch, which reopens next Tuesday.

Ramirez, recently of VCU Library systems, also has a strong vision. The daughter of two retired academics, she brings to her new job hopeless curiosity and a rich cultural background that includes Jewish, Moorish, Basque, and Visigoth blood on one side, and Spanish and American Indian ancestors on the other. More important, she also brings her dream to make our whole community a living library.

I chatted with Cristina via email about books, Richmond, and the role of libraries in the lives of Latino families.

 What appealed to you about the position at Richmond Public Library? 

It was a perfect match for me. I will manage one of the busiest branches in the Richmond Public Library, and I will get to work directly with community partners and leaders to create programming and events for a large number of underrepresented groups in Richmond. My passion ever since entering the profession has been to reach out to and encourage Latino and African American youth to stay in school and pursue their dreams. I feel very fortunate that I had parents that encouraged my learning so I want to pay it forward for other children and youth. Finally, I love the mission of Richmond Public Library-Inform, Enrich, Empower. This position allows me to work with the other branch managers, library administrators, and community partners to carry out the mission.

The heroine of Latina librarians: Pura Bulpré

It could be said that you’re a minority. As a Latina (although, as we all know, census predictions tell us it’s not going to be long before minorities are actually the majority.) But you’re part of only about 3% of librarians that identify as Latina. First, why aren’t there more Latina librarians? And second, why does it matter in your view?

I think that there are very few here regionally, but this is more a function of history and demographics. If you were to visit public libraries in California, Texas, New York or other states with a long history of Latino residents you would find many more Latino librarians. Virginia has a very young and emergent Latino population. I hope we will see more in the coming years but it is a pipeline issue. You have to convince them to go to library school to get their MLS degree to become professional librarians. Currently, Virginia does not have a library school so many have to go out of state or enroll in an online program.

I also think that it is not a profession that immediately comes to mind to many Latino youth. When they think about possible jobs, careers or professions, librarian does not seem to be on the top of the list. I hope that as the nature of libraries changes and the profession evolves, library schools and professionals can reshape how they conduct outreach. Planting the seed early that this is a noble and worthwhile profession can help encourage more Latinos to enter the profession.

[Having Latina librarians] does matter! When you have faces and names that you identity with when you come to a reference or circulation desk you feel more comfortable asking for services. And when you see a Latino surname and hear Spanish, you feel an immediate connection with the library and the staff.

You have such a varied background, which is really exciting to find in a librarian. Before joining the Broad Rock Branch of the Richmond Public Library as the manager, you were formerly at VCU, where you were the Collection Librarian for Social & Behavioral Sciences. You also have degrees in Philosophy and Religious studies, Middle Eastern Studies and Public Administration. Have you always been hopelessly curious? 

I collect books and I collect degrees as well. Once I get interested in a subject I have to keep learning and exploring it, it ends up in a degree. I wanted to learn about different world religions and philosophies so I did a degree in it while I pursued my B.S. in Psychology. Then, fascinated by Hebrew and Israel, I took a number of years of Biblical and Modern Hebrew and studies Israeli politics and culture. I even went to live in Jerusalem for a few months while enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. I am currently earning a Ph.D. in Education with a specialization in Research & Evaluation. My latest interests are statistics, program evaluation, and research design. I have been buying textbooks on designing quantitative and qualitative studies. I know, light reading. I am hopelessly curious; I am a big believer in lifelong learning.

The beautiful work of illustrator, Joe Cepeda
View his work at

What’s exciting to you about the Latino children’s literature scene today? 

What I find most exciting is the celebration of the stories and storytellers as well as the artists. Latino children’s literature tells the rich and varied stories that Latino children want to hear and need to hear. We all want to be connected to our culture, language, and history. Latino children’s literature makes these stories come alive with the beautiful artwork that accompanies these tales. I am always amazed at the fact that Latino children’s literature has both amazing storytellers and artists. Children are learning history and culture along with an appreciation for fine art.

You’re active with Reforma and other agencies with a mission to engage Latinos in innovative ways. What do you think are some of the mistakes libraries typically make as they try to connect with Latinos in their community?

Some libraries know that there is a Latino population but do not have the staff or resources to effectively reach out to them. At conferences I have met many librarians and library staff that are aware of their communities but are hesitant to engage due to a lack of cultural competence, linguistic ability, or not knowing how to relate to the community.

The issue probably lies more in the library school graduate programs that should include coursework and field experiences in working with diverse and underserved populations. Creating these experiences for librarians in training is very important. The creation of library Spanish course (like the medical Spanish courses you see in hospitals) would be useful to those who need to learn common expressions and terms to better relate to their patrons.

I also think that having programs and events that showcase elements of Latino culture and history are very important when connecting with a community. When your culture and history is recognized you feel that you have a stake in that library. Bringing in speakers that can connect with the parents and children will also form strong bonds with the community.

What are some of your favorite ways to make the library a cool place to be as well as an inviting place for Latinos?

To be a cool place you need to offer a clean, inviting environment with the resources that benefit the community the most. Today that is a mix of current technology and applications as well as popular fiction, nonfiction, and pleasure reading for youth. We need to offer current titles that cover a range of topics and genres. Series, for example, are very popular among teens. Given the economic climate, we also need to offer a number of resources to help people find and apply for jobs, create resumes and cover letters and to better their technology skills.

Having a library that has a welcoming and caring staff is one of the most important aspects of creating a cool place. Richmond Public Library has a very caring and dedicated staff. They will go out of their way to help patrons.

Finally, creating displays of titles and collections that will appeal to Latinos is crucial in making the library space itself feel welcoming to families. A display during Hispanic Heritage Month, bilingual posters and flyers to promote a cultural or programming event, and adding items or objects from the Latino culture during the holidays help to engage Latino families.

I know you’ve done presentations about the role of libraries in communities, specifically “libraries without walls.” What does that mean, exactly, and how will you make that idea grow legs in Richmond, VA? 

Libraries are not just the physical buildings that house the collections and resources; they are also the staff and community. We all are ‘libraries’ of information, experiences, history, and culture. Having librarians take the library outside of the walls into the community is to network and engage with the community. By tapping into the collective knowledge of the community, we strengthen the library as an institution and make it stronger for others.

For me that means identifying key community members that I consider ‘gatekeepers’ of knowledge.’ They may have key contacts, serve in important positions and understand the community at the ground level. By taking the library outside the walls you tap into all of these mini libraries in the community. They can help you develop a deep knowledge of the needs and wants of emergent communities.

I hope to make this idea grow legs here in Richmond by reaching out to many key community players, agencies, nonprofits, organizations, boards, and religious groups. They all form part of the fabric of the community and hold pieces to the puzzle. I want to create programming in Spanish that taps into the expertise of our business community for money management among Latinos. I want to develop basic computing courses in Spanish and bring in speakers and authors that will inspire and educate our Latino youth.

Your branch is just about to reopen on July 24th after a six-month renovation project. Your days must be packed with getting ready. Any secrets you care to let slip about the grand opening events?

The library under construction last March.

I am so excited about the renovation. We have both a children’s and teen area. The teen area has a nice reading space and is surrounded by graphic novels, comics, teen series and novels. The computing area has increased and we have many more workstations. There are also tables with power for laptops. The lighting and furniture is very colorful and the carpet is bright. The meeting room has and audio-visual and sound system. When you come in, the space is open and inviting. It is so comfortable that you won’t want to leave.


Any plans for maximizing on the fact that the new Latin Farmers market, La Plaza, is right next door?   

Absolutely. I want to get a table at the Latin Farmers market and promote Richmond Public Library and Broad Rock branch in particular. I also envision creating a number of tie-in events that will bring the customers of the market into the library for literary events. By creating programs and events with an emphasis on healthy foods and ethnic cuisine, cooking, and arts and crafts, I think that the Broad Rock branch is an ideal location for community engagement. I hope to reach more children and community members that have not previously used the library or resources.


Finish this sentence for me. Really great bibliotecas

son como un paraíso para la mente y para la gente.

(translation: “are like a paradise for the mind and for the people”)

Thanks, Cristina!

Looking for a good read? Some recommendations from Cristina:

  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.
  • Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear.
  • Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.

Hate Crimes, YA Lit & Latinos: An interview with Caroline Bock, author of LIE


Caroline Bock

St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011


I can’t say it’s a pleasure to read a book about hate crimes by teens. But since hate crimes against Latinos have seen  the highest spike in more than a decade – according to the FBI, over 66% of hate crimes in 2010 targeted Latinos – I was intrigued to find LIE by Caroline Bock. This debut novel tackles the topic by taking us inside the minds of both victims and victimizers. Ten lives intersect one horrible night when two brothers – one an immigrant from El Salvador, one a natural US citizen – are brutally assaulted by a group of Long Island teenagers. The novel lays bare the land mines of power groups among teens, racism, and ineffective adults. Mostly, though, I admire this powerful book for making us consider the bigger question of how hatred this dark can take root in people who are young, bright, and at the beginning of everything.

I’m honored to introduce you to Caroline Bock in my first Q & A feature, where we’ll talk about both craft and content.

Congratulations on a great debut, Caroline. To start us off, would you tell us a little bit about yourself in terms of what brought you to writing? What made you move from film and marketing to the world of writing for young people?  

Thank you so much, Meg. I feel like I’m in terrific company with you and your readers!

I’ve always had dual career dreams – to work in television and to write novels, screenplays and poetry. I was the editor of my high school literary magazine, I went to college, on scholarship, and majored in Communications and English at Syracuse University. I thought I would work for a few years in this job I found as a public relations assistant for a cable network and then go to graduate school and write my novels. Twenty years later, I was leading the marketing and public relations teams at Bravo and at the Independent Film Channel and I realized that I hadn’t written that novel I thought I would always write. I quit. (Well, it wasn’t as easy a decision as that but pursing one’s dreams is important at any age, isn’t it?). So about eight years ago, I started my second career as a writer, which by then also included being a mom.

Is the title LIE, as in the Long Island Expressway… or is the title Lie, as in an untruth? Both work, of course, but which did you have in mind?

Originally it was L.I.E. —  after the expressway – I thought I was being clever. But here’s why having early readers – and little brothers — is so important. My younger brother, David, who lives now in Cleveland, Ohio read the title and said to me, “What are you thinking? Nobody outside of New York is going to know why you are naming your novel after a highway.” So, after some thought, I changed the name to LIE, as in “untruth,” though I asked my publisher if we could have the title all in caps so all the New Yorkers – and all the close readers — would read the double meaning.

We’re both Queens, New York girls, which is always fun to find out. Do you still live and write there?  

When I was in my 20s, I lived in Queens in several different neighborhoods — Flushing, Rego Park, Forest Hills.  In LIE, I write about baseball and the Mets — I lived within walking distance of the baseball stadium – and it was a lot of fun going to games with my super-fan husband. About a dozen years ago, I moved out to Long Island where I live now – but it’s still only about 30 minutes (without traffic) to get to a Mets game and we are often there.

What drew you to write a novel about a hate crime against Latinos on Long /Island?

The first was having a very good friend from El Salvador with two teenage sons. The second was reading a 2008 front page New York Times story about the murder of young man from Ecuador by a group of mainly white teens on Long Island, who were out “beaner-hopping” in their words, i.e. beating up people they assumed were Latinos for sport.

I kept asking myself, “How could this happen here – in Long Island, in these nice middle class suburbs, in the 21st century?”  I turned to my friend and asked her that. She wasn’t shocked  – she knew prejudice, discrimination, violence  — she knew it well in El Salvador, where she fled from a civil war, and here, on Long Island in New York.

Describe your research for this novel. Were there any surprises as you dug into real-life cases? Have you come to any personal conclusions about what spurs this type of violence?

I read intensively about hate crimes across the country; I spoke at length to many friends and acquaintances from places such as El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico about their experiences in the suburbs; I even called the county sheriff’s office to confirm details about visiting hours for the county jail.  However, I never spoke with anyone involved with the actual incident on Long Island. By the end of the day, when I started writing, I wanted to make these characters my own and I put away the research. I think that’s why you come way feeling that these characters are “real” – the fiction makes them so.

In doing my research what surprised me—and saddened and angered me the most—was learning that these kind of violent hate crimes against Latinos were not isolated to Long Island in any way.   I keep hearing from readers across the country that they can relate to the themes in the novel.

One last thing, one thing that kept me going: all four of my grandparents were immigrants (from Russia, Poland and Italy) and they had hard times when they first arrived. They faced discrimination and many obstacles to the American dream. Yet, what I want more than anything is for this country to shed our 20th century prejudices. I hope my debut novel makes people think about how we break the cycle of racism and prejudice and embrace the diversity that is the destiny of the America  in the 21st century.

You tell this novel from alternating points of view. Tell us a little bit about that decision. What worked about that strategy and what was difficult?

I think I should have put a warning label on my novel: beware 10 distinct first person points of view even though 17-year-old Skylar and Sean emerge as the two main characters.

What worked? I believe in some ways the reader becomes the 11th point of view and hopefully is asking himself or herself by the end of the novel: what would I have done?   There’s not a lot of authorial moralizing in this book – which some readers have liked and others have been critical of – you read it and judge!

What was difficult? I had 10 different characters in my head – sometimes all talking to me at once, demanding to be written.

Many of the characters in LIE fall far short of the way we’d like to think that people of good conscience behave. I admire that you still make them feel fully realized – and not just twirling moustache bad-guys. Which character proved the most challenging for you to write? Is there a favorite – or one you’d like to slap around in a dark alley?

I’d like to give a good talking to Lisa Marie. She’s the best friend from hell.

To some extent, all writers call on their personal experience in shaping characters. Skylar lives with her single dad, a trait you share with her. How did your life experience of being raised by your father inform how you developed these two characters?

When I was four-and-a half my mother had a stroke, which left her brain-damaged and paralyzed and hospitalized for the rest of her life. My father raised four kids alone and I’m the oldest of the four. There was always a sense of loss in our house. We were the kids without the mother. I felt like I had to find my own way in life, though my father was there – a big, gruff, kind-hearted presence.

So when I started writing and I wanted to create a particularly vulnerable family, I created Skylar, who had lost her mother the year before from cancer, and her father, Tommy Thompson. I didn’t realize how much I was drawing on my inner self until I finished writing but I think that’s the way it is with a lot of writers.

You delve into the psychology of power.  I’m always interested in how that plays out in the lives of young women. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between Jimmy and Skylar? 

Jimmy, the leader of the group, handsome, confident, star Scholar-Athlete, wants to control Skylar – as much as he wants to control everyone around him. He sees the world in terms of winners and losers – and he plans to be a “winner.” In his world, there’s “first place or no place.” Why wouldn’t Skylar want to be his girlfriend? Everyone wants to be Jimmy’s friend. Haven’t so many of us felt giddy being picked by the boy we thought could do no wrong – until he does.

 The book contains violence, sexuality, and suicide. What’s your answer to critics of these elements in books for young people?

I devoured novels as a teen to understand the way the world works – I think many teens read for that reason.  At the end of the day, we can’t make the world —  either in fantasies such as Hunger Games or in  contemporary, realistic novels such as LIE – any prettier or lighter than it is and still be true to our characters and our stories – and our lives.

Most of all, I’m in the Sherman Alexie  camp (one of my inspirations for LIE  is his brilliant novel: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).  Earlier this year, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal a response to such critics that he writes books for teenagers, “Because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers.  I don’t write to protect them.  It’s far too late for that.  I write to give them weapons—in the forms of words and ideas – that will help them fight their monsters.”

Are there upcoming projects you want to tell us about?

Yes, but they are still in development, and I am very superstitious and cannot talk about them until I know they will exist beyond my computer screen.  But I do hope to have a long second career writing novels, screenplays and poetry, so stay tuned as they say in television.

Meg, thank you for the chance to speak with you and your readers!


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