Latina writer of books for kids of all ages.

Archive for the ‘What I’m reading’ Category

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.

 

 

 

Where books meet disaster: A brief reading list about kids and migration

Buttons of the winning titles. Thank you, Celia Perez!

Buttons of the winning titles. Thank you, Celia Perez!

I got home last week from the ALA conference, an experience that still makes me daydream, especially when I think of the energy and passion in the room at the Pura Belpré awards. You can find my speech and Yuyi Morales’s speech here, but the truth is that the text doesn’t replicate the emotion that was in the room. All of us receiving recognition were teary and humbled –and not just by the honor being extended to our books. A good part of our emotion stemmed from the unspoken presence of people who were not actually in the room with us.

This summer, our news outlets have exploded with accounts of the nearly 40,000 unaccompanied childrenwho have arrived on our border to find themselves not only exhausted, afraid and alone, but also the target of explosive rage. Whatever your view on immigration policy, I hope you can agree that what we’re seeing is a human tragedy on the backs of the weakest and smallest among us.

All of us writers on that stage work for young people because we respect them and treasure what should be a sacred time for all children. All of us on that stage have been touched by migration, either directly or indirectly, in our own families. All of us have been the recipients of our parents’ most ardent hopes for our futures, sometimes at the expense of their own. It is heartbreaking, then, for us to see children so completely lost and in need of help.

As Javier and I traveled back home, the TV monitors overhead in the airport  flashed with images of sign-wielding protestors and supporters, with images of children handing over their birth certificates or chugging water from empty milk jugs, with shots of them sleeping on the floors like inmates.

The difficult story of migration is the Latino story, and it is the human story since time began. It can’t be captured in two-minute news clips and it can’t be screamed and shouted down.

Here for you, then, in honor of these children, I offer a short summer reading list to add to your thinking on this issue. It’s by no means a complete bibliography of what’s out there, but it’s a start…

Picture book Rene Colato Lainez

Picture book
Rene Colato Lainez

Duncan Tonatuih Pura Belpré honor for writing and illustration, 2014

Duncan Tonatuih
Pura Belpré honor for writing and illustration, 2014

 

 

Adult fiction by Cristina Henríquez, one of my favorite reads this year

Adult fiction by Cristina Henríquez, one of my favorite reads this year

My 2012 release: 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

The Literary Activist: When writing moves beyond your computer

Picture the fervor of a rock concert smashed into book geekdom and strong girls.

That’s the Girls of Summer live launch party, being held tonight, June18, 7 pm at the Richmond Public Library (Main branch).

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

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

Gigi and I started the project four years ago, and it has grown into a vibrant partnership that has galvanized our local library, improving their children’s and teens circulation numbers– not to mention their good mood. More importantly, it has connected girls in Richmond not only to good books but also to their own sense of what it means to be a strong girl in 2014.

shutterstock_1216096kissing girlWhen we started this, Gigi and I couldn’t have guessed how it would grow.  The idea was so simple. We had both used books so heavily in helping us raise our own daughters. What were the books we’d recommend to girls and their moms now?

Each year, we answer that question with the help of 20 or so exceptionally talented and generous authors who think girls are amazing, too.  We’ve had the titans in children’s literature, like Jacqueline Woodson, and we’ve had debut authors, like this year’s Hannah Barnaby. What matters to us is the story and the celebration of as diverse a group of girls as possible.

Our librarians and local friends help, too, as photographers, as copyeditors, as designers, as event planners. The sum total is a notable blog and a live launch event that has moved us from little mentions in local events calendars to articles and segments in big places like NPR and CNN.

What I’m most proud of, though, isn’t the press. What’s cool here is that we’ve made a reading event a big deal. Think of all the ways a kid can spend their time. How cool that they choose to spend some of it with us.

So this is what I can tell you: When you first start your life as an author, you’re not thinking about how you can impact your community. You’re thinking about writing your story and about how you can get published. It seems as though being published will be a joy in and of itself.

And it is.

But it’s what you do with your role as an author that can really bump up your joy index. Being a literary citizen means using your love and knowledge of books to make something better for your community. For Gigi and me, it means joy.

Today, I opened my eyes and thought, Its’ here! The energy is everywhere. People are jazzed about the book list. It’s tweeted and shared. The ice cream man double checked on what flavors to bring. The librarians and their readers have polished their excerpts. We’re tying ribbons around the giveaways. Somehow all the exhaustion of planning Girls of Summer has evaporated.

IMG_1560 copy

My favorite picture of my pal and me. This was when she won the 2013 Library of Virginia’s People’s Choice Award

What’s left is this: Two authors and friends spending time together. A library throwing open its doors to a city full of children. And girls of every age, hungry to find their favorite summer story. It doesn’t get better than that.

 

Football, Racism & Latino History for Teens: A talk with Sandra Neil Wallace

Muckers_coverThe holidays are a time to invite friends to your house, and that’s true for this blog, too. I’m honored to have Sandra Neil Wallace with me this week. Sandra is a former ESPN sportscaster and author of Muckers (Knopf 2013), a YA novel for anyone who loves fútbol Americano and underdog stories. But more important to me, it’s also a thoughtful look at anti-Latino racism in the 1950s and the difficult circumstances of Mexican-American families in Arizona at that time. Based on true events, the novel follows Red O’Sullivan, team quarterback, and his friend Cruz as they cobble together their high school’s last football season.  It offers us not only an inspiring look back, but also a way to ask questions about where we are now in sports and race.

________________________

How did you discover this story?

I was living in Sedona, Arizona, working as an ESPN announcer and discovered the Muckers story in a box of letters written to the principal of Jerome High School. Most of the letters were from young Mexican-American men who had graduated and gone to war. The letters helped me uncover the incredible sports triumph of the 1950 football team. Despite being the smallest squad in the state, playing on a rock field, and facing ridicule for being an integrated team, they made a run for the state championship. The football season in Muckers is modeled after theirs, and I interviewed surviving players to create characters I’d imagine experiencing the hardships of that time period.Author_Sandra_Neil_Wallace_2013

Muckers is set in a mining town that forces a diverse group of people to survive together, yet racism runs deep. Can you tell us about the racism that existed at that time in Arizona?

The extreme danger involved in that profession forced a diverse group to develop trust in each other to stay alive, but once the shift ended, miners headed to different sections on the hill, and your position dictated where you lived. Many Mexican American miners were muckers (they shoveled waste into ore cars) and blasters living in the gulch section known as “Mexicantown.”

The majority of Jerome’s citizens were of Mexican descent, yet there was a tremendous amount of confusion when it came to classification. Census takers check-marked boxes labeled “white” then wrote “Mexican” beside it. But what was clear was that Mexican Americans did not have the same rights as whites in Arizona. Many districts forced Mexican-American students to attend different schools under the guise of “separate but equal” education.

Jerome’s schools and teams were integrated but players still faced daily paradoxes competing against teams from segregated schools. What struck me hardest was the segregation of the town swimming pool. The humiliation felt by the young Mexican-American players was palpable in the letters they’d sent to their principal. How could you be on the same team and not be able to swim with your teammates? How could you be counted on to win a championship, yet afterwards, be prevented from socializing with your peers? The repercussions of these boundaries are what I explore in Muckers.segregation2

Any surprises in the research for you?

Yes; resilience, dignity, and hope amidst adversity. And how a single act of kindness from a teacher or a coach can influence a generation of men. As humans, we intrinsically search for glimmers of hope and when we find it, we take hold of it. Jerome’s principal and coach encouraged students and players to break down racial barriers. As a team, the Muckers responded by banding together and becoming a symbol of hope for their community.

This amazing team is such a contrast, for example, to incidents such as the Miami Dolphins and Richie Incognito.

Racism still exists in sports at all levels and will continue if management and coaches don’t set policies that get enforced to stop the culture of racism. What’s different now is that it’s getting exposed. It’s unfortunate when the result is to walk away from the game that you love in order to avoid racism instead of it sparking discussion that could lead to change.

Your characters are layered characters, young men of many cultures. What must a writer get right when writing across cultures? What were your guiding principles in your work on the characters?

Immersion, inquiry, and empathy.

As a journalist I immersed myself in 1950 Arizona through personal interviews, newspapers, oral histories and photographs, to capture the language and points of view of those living through the social injustices, the Communist scare, and the Korean War. But once this groundwork is done, you have to ask the difficult questions– the ones that make people squirm—in order to capture emotions and get at the truth. Empathy allows you to understand.

I could draw on my own experience with gender discrimination as a sportscaster and my family’s history of ethnic discrimination in Europe as German Yugoslavs after World War II, when they became property of the state and were sent to concentration camps.

Traumatic events are universal and also unforgettable. My grandmother vividly remembers what the sky looked like when she was taken to the concentration camp. The Mexican-American players from Jerome can recite the segregated swim times 65 years later. As a writer, it’s your responsibility to get as close to these realities as possible and if you don’t, the writing will be weak. But if a reader believes that an author should only write about characters that are their own gender, ethnicity or race, that’s discrimination, too.

What did you learn from the Muckers’ experience?

Well, the Muckers story continues. The novel unleashed a voice that had been silenced for more than 60 years. Players say the book has enabled them to talk about the town’s segregation and brought them closer together. But what means most to me is the letter from a player taped on my office wall with two words written on it: “You understand.

___________________

Read the Kirkus review of Muckers here.

Sandra Neil Wallace is a former news anchor and ESPN sportscaster, who is now a full- time author. She was named an outstanding newcomer to the children’s literature scene by the Horn Book following the publication of her first novel, Little Joe. Her forthcoming book is a children’s biography of sports legend Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Sandra lives in New Hampshire with her husband, author Rich Wallace.

Follow her on Twitter @SandraNWallace or by visiting www.gomuckers.com

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 www.jamesriverwriters.org  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.

 

VLF

I Can Almost Smell the Sunscreen: Girls of Summer 2013

It’s almost that time again!  Gigi and I are putting the very last touches on Girls of Summer 2013, our annual curated reading list of summer reads for strong girls.

Girls of Summer 2013Two dates for you:

June 10, 2013:  the new list and our reviews will go live on the blog (www.girlsofsummerlist.wordpress.com)

June 18, 2013:  Our live launch party 7 pm at Library Park, behind the main branch of the Richmond Public Library. 101 East Franklin Street, Richmond, VA. Free and open to the public. Refreshments, book giveaways, and an author panel with Jeri Watts and Kristen Paige Madonia.

Hope you enjoy our new trailer!

Gracias Sandra Cisneros

So, I got home from the Nat’l Book Festival on Saturday. I had dusty toes and a tired back, but my head was swirling with gratitude for the way of the world.

True, the lines inside the Barnes & Noble tent were obnoxiously long, but it was a great event in every other way. My friend Katharine and I set out by train – a pleasant two-hour ride – and spent our day strolling the  grounds, eating Snicker bars in the sunshine, and generally marveling at the mass of people who came from all over the country to celebrate the best our country has to offer in terms of books and authors.  I got to meet illustrator Rafael López and his lovely wife, Candice, who chatted with us about their mural projects, their new Obama poster, and our shared friends, whose talents we both admire.

But in the afternoon, I received a gift I never expected from this festival. I’d managed to snag a chair inside the tent where Sandra Cisneros was speaking.  I read The House on Mango Street in the 1980s, of course, and I’ve been a fan ever since, devouring her short stories, picture books and novels as soon as they’re published. Her voice always rings fierce and true, and like so many other Latina authors, I can point to her work as an influence on why I like to capture Latino culture in fiction. She is, in my view, a literary madrina to our whole country. As soon as she took the stage, I was starstruck.

Her newest book is Have You Seen Marie?, an illustrated short story.”I wrote this when my mother died, and I was feeling like an orphan,” she told us.  She’d had a difficult relationship with her mother, and yet, when her mother died, Sandra felt completely lost.

I sat perfectly still.

Some of you already know that my mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer last Christmas and that she decided against radiation or chemo. (“I’m too old to put myself through that,” she said.) Instead, we packed her things in Florida, and by February, she and my aunt (the famous tía Isa) moved in with us in Richmond. Suddenly I was in charge of caring for eccentric elderly women whose bodies were failing and whose habits were slipping into manias.

We go through our days peacefully enough, filling pill boxes, going to doctor appointments, dragging me (there is no other way to say it) through Walmart. There are occasional eye rolls and snappish answers when one of us is careless. Twice I have had full shouting melt-downs. I get endless advice (about cooking, folding laundry, parenting, yes, even writing) whether I want it or not. I get full daily reports on people’s body functions. And I get a lot of new responsibilities – scary ones – for the things that she is appalled to discover that she can no longer manage or remember how to do. Fighting with insurance companies, online banking, official letters in English that she wants carefully translated. Behind everything, though, I know that we are readying ourselves to say  goodbye with clear hearts, even if neither one of us dares to say so.

Our relationship was sometimes volatile, often distant, sprinkled with finger-pointing and criticisms. Maybe every mother-daughter relationship is this way. (This is what Sandra Cisneros thinks.) Maybe it’s especially acute when cultural divides come into play. There are times we lived through that I don’t like to remember, if only because I am ashamed of how one of us — or both — behaved. And yet, here we are, our days counting down, and the only thing we can grab on to is that we each did our best. When it’s all said and done, the thought of not having my imperfect and maddening mother  makes me feel like an orphan, too.

Sandra finished her reading, an ending filled with acceptance and hope. I was scarcely breathing. In taking questions, she offered this advice to the writers in the audience.

“Don’t write the stories about things you remember.  Write the ones about the things you wish you could forget.”

So, here is my first baby step.