Latina writer of books for kids of all ages.

Archive for the ‘picture book, middle grade, YA’ Category

Read Brave Write Brave: My upcoming visit to St. Paul

This week, I’m heading back to St. Paul, Minnesota (average temperature in February is 23.7 degrees F). This time I’ll be there for a community visit that has some unexpected ties right here to Virginia, where I live.

Last year, St. Paul reached out to me with the big news that my 2016 YA novel, Burn Baby Burnhad been adopted as part of its community-wide read through a program called Read Brave.

Burn will be read as a companion novel with the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Evicted: Poverty and Profit in The American City by Matthew Desmond. The book follows the harrowing experiences of eight families caught in the vicious cycle of evictions in Milwaukee, WI between 2007 and 2008. It’s a stark book, a heartbreaking one for all it tells us about people and the systemic pressures against them. It’s a must-read if you’re interested in seeing the true face of life at the very edge of housing despair.

At first I was confused. St. Paul’s tagline is “the most livable city in America,” after all. What was up? Turns out, they’re in a housing crisis like so many other American cities. With about 2.4 percent vacancy rate, it’s not really “livable” unless you have a good income.

What was especially appealing to me about the invitation to St. Paul was that the organizers of the Read Brave program were inclusive of young people as they considered this challenging topic. To make sure readers of all ages were tuned into the conversation, they’ve selected a range of titles spanning all age groups. These include: Shelter by Céline Claire; Rich by Nikki Grimes; Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate; and Yard Sale by Eve Bunting.

That, to me, seemed like one of the most respectful approaches I’ve heard. A community is made up of citizens of every age, and its problems – including housing insecurity – hurts them all. Having nowhere to live, or being a sick day away or a car repair away from being put out on the street, puts stress on families and kids, and it’s the kind of slow-burn stress that changes kids in lasting ways. It impacts their learning, their coping skills, their mental and physical health. It becomes an all-consuming problem as Nora Lopez in my novel certainly knew.

The unfortunate irony of this trip is that it also coincides with my own city’s reckoning with housing issues. I make my home to the south, in Richmond, Virginia, where we have a considerably warmer climate. Sure, you could say that things have been looking fairly rosy. The US News and World Report listed us among the top 25 places to live in this country in 2017. It’s a small city, filled with good restaurants, strong arts, and lots of beautiful natural resources.

But the truth is that we’re also a city struggling not only with the national embarrassment of our leaders’ racist and possibly criminal past behaviors, but one that is struggling with housing demons of our own.

The Richmond Times Dispatch reported last June that half of the large cities with the highest eviction rates in the nation are right here in Virginia.

Richmond has an eviction rate that is three times the national average – and one that is factually and undeniably tied to race. Our lousy tenant protection laws coupled with a lack of affordable units being built for renters only fuel the problem. For all the work of heroes like our recently deceased Lillie Estes, who labored for years on behalf of her neighbors in Gilpin Court, the work is not done.

It’s all well and good to enjoy trendy neighborhoods, fine restaurants, and notations in travel guides. I won’t begrudge anyone that. But it can’t happen by ignoring the needs of families that have been systemically afflicted. It can’t happen by leaving children in simmering trauma.

I’m eager to hear what the citizens of St. Paul have to say. A YA novel can’t solve housing problems, for sure, but it certainly can name them honestly.  I hope Burn Baby Burn gave them a place to feel seen and understood.

I’ll let you know when I’m back…

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/

 

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

9780805074291-l 150202122350-020115-ala-midwinter411274-super-169 A1mxLIxKpML61AaK--hQHL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_51kQtB3SsSL._SX414_BO1,204,203,200_

 

Middle Grade/ YA

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

Adults

94564

51RSFou20iL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

10850004_335808523280176_6529446118646473240_n

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

 

Book Hoarding and other things I admitted to on Book Riot

imagesMy heroes at Book Riot have a new podcast series called Reading Lives, where authors talk about pretty much anything except their own books. I’m on there today, episode #2, where Jeff O’Neal and I talk about my book collection fetish, as well as all the titles and authors (some surprising) that have shaped everything from my sense of culture to how I parented.

These days I do a lot of interviews, but I can’t remember a time when doing one was this much fun. Maybe it’s because Jeff (aka @readingape on Twitter) is so charming, but maybe too because the hook is so simple. Two people talking about the books we love, old and new. What can I say?  It’s a literary geek’s dream.

If you’ve got some time, check it out. You can subscribe on i-tunes, too.

 

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.