Newbery award winner and New York Times bestselling author

Posts tagged ‘Alfred Knopf books for young adults’

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.

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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.

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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

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

A THUNDEROUS WHISPER, ALFRED A. KNOPF, OCTOBER 2012,

978-0-375-86929-7

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