Latina writer of books for kids of all ages.

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The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary: An Interview with NoNi Ramos

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

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

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

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

Muchas gracias!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That being said, I wrote Macy’s story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What are you working on next?

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

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

 

Connect with Noni Ramos:

https://twitter.com/NoNiLRamos

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

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

http://nonilramos.tumblr.com/

 

Girls of Summer 2017 in pictures

What a night! Girls of Summer 2017 launched into the world on Wednesday, June 21. Dancing with Rita Williams Garcia! Book talking with Stacy Hawkins Adams, Beth Morris, Amanda Nelson, and Gigi Amateau. Eating ice pops with girls from all over Richmond. Here’s a peek at how it went down!

How’s this for a good idea on vinyl? Look closely: the book jackets are the record labels

More vinyl

Part of the dream team. Stacy Hawkins Adams and Amanda Nelson. Check the gift bags this year, compliments of Georgi Green

Gigi arrives with the hand-made bags for the girls of summer winners, courtesy of Betty Sanderson

The annual basket of book cover buttons

With the ever fabulous Patty Parks, visionary branch manager of the Richmond Public Library

Some of our guests…

Our audience continues to grow

Our third attempt at a selfie with Beth Morris, part of the GOS 2017 selection committee

Rita Williams Garcia interviewed by Maeve and Alex from Richmond Young Writers. Stacy Adams facilitating.

This is what it’s about. With my friend and co-founder, Gigi Amateau.

 

To see our entire Girls of Summer list and to start following the weekly author Q & As, visit www.girlsofsummerlist.com.

Why I Wish I Could Be Split in Two

logoIt’s too early to be in this airport, but I’m on the way to the Southwest Florida Reading Festival. I’ll step off the plane and head to right to a school to read Mango, Abuela and Me. Then, it’s all preparation for my time outside tomorrow.

beach-with-palm-treesThe downside to being in the Florida sunshine, though, is that I’ll miss the presentation of the inaugural Walter Award at the Library of Congress. We Need Diverse Books‘s judges picked three of my favorite reads of 2015.

I want to send a huge congratulations to winners Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (All-American Boys), and honor winners Margarita Engle (Enchanted Air); Kekla Magoon and Ilyasa Shabazz (X).

I am in DC in spirit!

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All things wise and ghostly: Old & new titles to scare you at every age

It’s coming up on October, a tough month for those of us who despise being terrified. What can I tell you? Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin did me in when I was a teen, and I don’t think I ever recovered.

Anyway, here’s a quick list of titles (old and new) that I’ve loved anyway for their nudge toward all things ghostly and wise.

Picture books

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Middle Grade/ YA

6a00d83451584369e200e54f7d4a268834-800wi18070700 71Vwvp8-XfL9780545162074_p3_v1_s523x595(I just couldn’t leave Harry Potter out…)

Adults

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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

Caminar by Skila Brown

Caminar-hi-res

On Saturday, I had the chance to talk about one of my favorite reads of last year.

I read Caminar by Skila Brown in the fall, and I’m so glad I finally had the chance to talk about it on Weekend Reads.

I’m often asked who has permission to write Latino stories. My personal view: the person with the humility, depth, research skills, and writing chops to do it. In this case, that person was Skila Brown.

Here are some thoughts on violence, children’s literature, and the need to tell our histories.

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/415752511/416192516

 

Girls of Summer’s Big, Bad, Birthday Bash

It’s here! The Girls of Summer Reading list goes live on our blog today. (Click over and check out the titles and our reviews.) But what this really means is that we’re at the start of a big week for us, since our live events happen this week, too. Last minute plans, airport pickups, raffle items – agh!

Gigi and I are so proud of the collection this year – especially since it marks our fifth anniversary of celebrating strong girls and reading.

Where did five years go?

We launched the list as our daughters were making their way out of high school. Today, Judith is living her dream of running a barn in California, training horses with a sure and skilled hand. Sandra has just moved into her own apartment in Washington, DC and will take the helm of a second grade class in the fall. And Cristina has recently landed her first official office job with Midas Auto Parts – an employer whose embrace of community extends to helping individuals with disabilities make meaningful contributions.

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Judith and Tiny

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Sandra’s graduation day with friends. Next stop DC!

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The ultimate strong girl: Cristina

Gigi and I have changed, too. We continue to write and publish books about strong girls and to see our respective careers unfold in ways that we could never have imagined five years ago. Earning the Pura Belpré award for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass has provided me an incredible platform that I hope I’ve used wisely. I’ve crisscrossed the country encouraging more books that represent all kinds of young people.

Gigi, Tim Tingle, Ellen Oh, Kwame Alexander and me at the Library of Congress

Gigi, Tim Tingle, Ellen Oh, Kwame Alexander and me at the Library of Congress

To Richmond’s great fortune, Gigi recently became the Chief Impact Officer for the United Way of Richmond and Petersburg, where she uses her skills and vision to manage $5.0 million in philanthropic grants and initiatives that help the people in our community learn more, earn more, and lead safe and healthy lives.

But most fun for us has been watching Girls of Summer grow. It’s not really ours any more. It belongs to the community – as it should. Our little project began as a personal expression of our passions for motherhood, books, girls, and our shared city. But five years later, it has been warmly embraced by the incredible staff at Richmond Public Library and bbgb books, where it is now an annual event covered by the likes of CNN and NPR. Other organizations – such as James River Writers, the Junior League, and Richmond Family Magazine – have found clever ways to add their spin to our original idea. Best of all, though, is that we get to see loyal teachers, librarians, parents, and girls come year after year for ice cream (thank you Dabney Morris!) and book lovin’.

I hope you’ll decide to escape this week’s heat wave (94 degree??? Bleh) and help us usher in the summer months. We’re having two celebrations in our area. You won’t be sorry if you come to both, especially since we’ve packed each one with amazing authors for a live Q & A and signing. Look who’s coming to party!

Patty Parks, librarian, Gigi and me at Girls of Summer 2012

Patty Parks, librarian, Gigi and me at our first Girls of Summer

Wednesday, June 17, 7 PM, at the Richmond Public Library, Main Branch, Franklin Avenue. We’ll be joined by two fantastic authors:  Debut novelist Aisha Saeed, a powerful and important new voice who helps lead the We Need Diverse Books campaign; and Sharon Draper, winner of multiple Coretta Scott King Awards and a New York Times bestseller. Sharon is this year’s winner of the American Library Association’s prestigious Margaret A. Edwards Award, which honors an author for significant and lasting contributions to young adult literature.

9780399171703_Written_in_the_Stars stella hi res

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, June 20, 2015, 1 – 3 PM, Northside Library, Charlottesville, VA. The Junior League of Charlottesville has been hard at work for months to welcome the ever-fabulous Newbery-Honor winner, author/illustrator CeCe Bell, and veteran writer – and debut novelist – Marilyn Hilton to our first-ever Girls of Summer WEST party.  Join them, plus some of our favorite Girls of Summer authors from the Charlottesville area for all the fun.

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See you all there!

IMG_0849 copyUn abrazo –

Meg