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Interview and Giveaway with Pura Belpré Honor Author Alexandra Diaz

 

Alexandra Diaz is the author of The Only Road, a Pura Belpré Honor book and Américas Award winner, which she also co-translated into Spanish, El único destino. She is also the author of the YA novels, Of All the Stupid Things (re-titled When We Were) which was a ALA Rainbow List book, and Good Girls Don’t Lie. For her day-job, she teaches circus arts to children and adults. She can be found at alexandra-diaz.com, facebook.com/AlexandraDiazAuthor, or on Twitter @alexandratdiaz.

(Photo credit: Owen Benson)

From Indiebound:

Twelve-year-old Jaime makes the treacherous and life-changing journey from his home in Guatemala to live with his older brother in the United States in this gripping and realistic middle grade novel.

Jaime is sitting on his bed drawing when he hears a scream. Instantly, he knows: Miguel, his cousin and best friend, is dead.

Everyone in Jaime’s small town in Guatemala knows someone who has been killed by the Alphas, a powerful gang that’s known for violence and drug trafficking. Anyone who refuses to work for them is hurt or killed–like Miguel. With Miguel gone, Jaime fears that he is next. There’s only one choice: accompanied by his cousin Angela, Jaime must flee his home to live with his older brother in New Mexico.

Inspired by true events, The Only Road is an individual story of a boy who feels that leaving his home and risking everything is his only chance for a better life. It is a story of fear and bravery, love and loss, strangers becoming family, and one boy’s treacherous and life-changing journey.

PURA BELPRE HONOR BOOK
ALA NOTABLE BOOK
“Powerful and timely.” —Booklist (starred review)
“An important, must-have addition to the growing body of literature with immigrant themes.” —School Library Journal (starred review)

Congratulations on the Pura Belpré Honor! Tell us what it was like to find out about it. How did you celebrate?

I was driving a friend to Tuscan and didn’t hear the phone ring. It wasn’t until 11 o’clock that night that I checked my messages. I was very excited and thrilled and couldn’t really believe it. In the morning I double-checked the messages and sure enough it was still there! Once back in Santa Fe, my mom and sister took me out for lunch, and the ladies in my writing group brought cake and ice cream to our following meeting. It was awesome and such an honor!

In your Author’s Note, you tell us that you are the child of Cuban refugees. How does that inform your writing in The Only Road?

I grew up hearing stories of what it was like to leave family and home behind. Though my parents’ experience was different than what my characters went through, the thoughts and feelings remained the same: what was going to happen, would they make it, would they ever come back, and so forth. But mostly it was the sense of not having any other choice.

How did you decide to depict the uglier, more violent aspects of the journey and still make the book appropriate for middle-grade readers?

I wanted a book true to the current immigration status and the experiences of real people. But yes, I also didn’t want to introduce situations that readers weren’t prepared to understand. For example, I mentioned that if the gangs thought Ángela was pretty enough, she would become one of the gang members’ girlfriends and left it at that. The reader could then interpret that to whatever level they felt comfortable.

Why did you choose to have Ángela and Jaime travel together, rather than Jaime going it alone?

By traveling together, they could help each other out, it adds compassion, and it also ups the tension. I love characters and characters’ relationships with each other. As a writer, I think I would have been a bit bored if Jaime were on his own, especially as other characters come and go.

A Spanish version of The Only Road was also published. Can you tell us about the process?

I think I had just finished writing the English version when I was asked if I wanted to translate it. The prospect excited and scared me as my brain shifted continuously from “I’d love to!” and “I can’t do it!” I never learned Spanish in school so my writing abilities are not very strong. But my mom said we had to do it and I’m so glad we did. We worked on the translation together—her focusing more on the grammar and vocabulary and me on the narrative/character voice and structure. I chose the title El único destino because “destino” has a double meaning of “destination” and “destiny”. Hopefully the overall effect worked well!

What kind of research did you do to get the details right?

I read a lot of biographies, autobiographies, and other nonfiction material that discussed the immigrants’ journey. I also interviewed a few people who had either immigrated themselves or worked with immigrants or along the migration trail. I knew I wouldn’t want to experience it for myself, but I did want to remain true to what happens and several resources expressed similar events. Thank goodness for the internet, which allowed me have access to much more than I would have found otherwise, including a map of the cargo train routes through Mexico. I did visit Mexico a couple of times to get a feel for the country and what it looks like and translate that sense into the book.

If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from The Only Road, what would it be?

Young people read about slavery and the Holocaust but not so often about what is happening with immigration today. I would like readers to know this is something that is going on in the world today, possibly even happened to classmates or neighbors. And for those readers who have experienced something similar, I wanted to remind them that they are not alone and there’s always hope.

How is writing middle-grade fiction different from writing for young adults?

When I write YA, I tend to write in first person, while middle grade comes out in third. Most of the differences I noticed were around that: first person is more internal and limited to what that one character is experiencing while third person allowed me to move into an occasional omniscient or different characters’ point of view. Also, when writing for young adults, anything goes in terms of language, sex, violence, etc. but middle grade fiction requires a few more filters. That said, I never felt restricted or frustrated in terms of what content to include. If anything, I feel I’m a better and more diverse writer as a result.

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed The Only Road?

The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez is a great historical novel about Cuban immigration in the 1960s that is truthful and compassionate.

 

I also enjoyed The Arrival by Shaun Tan, which is a wordless graphic novel that truly captures the feel and emotions of an immigrant or refugee.

What’s your favorite thing about middle-grade fiction (as a reader or a writer)?

I love getting involved in the story and situations of youth. I feel I can connect better with them than I do adults or fiction for adults. I also enjoy that for the most part middle-grade fiction is fast-paced with good action and generally has some funny lines.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle-grade fiction?

It’s important to know your audience, how they behave and interact together. Some of the biggest mistakes I’ve noticed is talking down to your reader, or having the protagonist seem too young or too good. Read a lot of middle grade and write even more. If there are people you trust who can give you constructive criticism, that’s great, keeping in mind that your work can always be better, but not every bit of feedback has to be applied. Remain true to yourself while striving to make your writing better. Above all, keep writing and keep going no matter what setbacks you might find.

 

Alexandra has kindly offered a copy of The Only Road as a giveaway. Enter below (USA/Canada only, please).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Indie Spotlight: The Voracious Reader, Larchmont NY

Sue Cowing for Mixed-Up Files: We’re talking today with Francine Lucidon of The Voracious Reader (www.thevoraciousreader.com).  Don’t you love the subtitle: “for young people with an appetite for books”?
MUF: You opened your shop ten years ago in 2007, generally considered a precarious time for bookstores, yet you’ve thrived.  Guess you knew something the doom-predictors didn’t!  How do you account for your success? 
Francine: While it may not have been the “right time” for a new indie, it was absolutely the perfect time for me and my family to embark on this adventure.  I can be a little headstrong that way. As for our success (which in the world of bookstores often means simply scraping together the rent and salaries each month) again, I credit that hard headed determination. Plus a wonderful supportive staff and community!

Franklin, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Extraordinaire

MUF: For those who haven’t visited (yet), please describe the atmosphere of your store.  When a middle-grade girl or boy comes to your store, what would you like him or her to experience?  How to you connect them with the next best book?
Francine: The store is super friendly – on Fridays you can meet our dog. Navigating the store is fun, with many themed displays, lots of great face-outs and of course, our treats and tea shop attached.

MUF: How do you decide what titles to carry in your store?
Francine: I do a lot of reading myself but also rely on feedback from our Uncommon Corps group. I look for both authors that consistently do well here as well as exciting debut authors. Often I find out about debut authors from regional conferences. I also make sure to read reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal.

MUF: Tell us more about your book club for ages 8-11, Uncommon Corps of Ravenous Readers (love that title—so true for this age group) and what they do.  
Francine: this is an ARCS club, a group of book and pizza loving 8 to 11 year olds. Each person reads and reviews/discusses a unique book not yet published (cool factor J). On the first Friday evening of the month middle graders gather at our meetup to talk books and eat pizza , and at the end of the evening everyone gets another free Advance Review Copy to talk about at our next meeting.

MUF: When the members turn 12, they can move on to the YA Alliance, right?
Francine: Yes, that’s our teen club which is run similarly with YA books.

MUF: As middle-grade authors, we’d love to know what titles, old or new, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourself recommending most often to middle-graders these days.
Francine: Recommendations depend so much on the reader. I like to know what they’ve read recently, what they tend to enjoy most, then, by showing them maybe 3 titles or so, I feel confident to choose the recommendation that makes their eyes light up. To be honest I usually find 2 or 3 titles a season that I absolutely love and foist them on everyone! A couple of favorites not too long ago have been Kathy Appelt’s Maybe a Fox and The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, both soon to release in paperback. Middle grade readers often prefer books that appeal to their strong emotions.  Then there are books that are just plain, silly fun like The Terrible Two from Mac Barnett and Jory John.

 

MUF: Any author visits or events coming up that would be of special interest to middle-graders?
Francine: We’ll be launching book 2 of the Pixie Piper duology by Annabelle Fisher , Pixie Piper and the Matter of the Batter, probably at the end of May. People who’d like to attend our events can sign up for our newsletter (www.thevoraciousreader.com) or follow us on our Facebook Page.

MUF: If a family came to Larchmont to visit your shop, would there be family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they could get a snack or a meal afterward?  Any unique sights or activities nearby that they shouldn’t miss?
Francine:
They could certainly get snacks in our attached teashop, A Proper Cup, including all natural ice cream from Jane’s of the Hudson Valley. We’ve got lemonade, a huge variety of loose leaf teas and Stumptown cold brew coffee. We’ve also got cupcakes, cake pops. Scones and more. There’s a great Chinese restaurant right next door, wonderful restuarants of all kinds throughout town and a beautiful beachfront park called Manor Park. The town is strollable and filled with families which makes an afternoon here a great family destination.

MUF: How will The Voracious Reader be celebrating National    Independent Bookstore Day on Saturday, April 30th?
Francine:
This year over 400 bookstores nationwide (including OURS!) are joining up to let you know that, with your support,your independent bookstore (that’s US!) can serve as an important hub of ideas, fun and community building! Publishers and authors have created special items to be sold ONLY by participating stores and ONLY on our day of celebration! Stop in for special items from such luminaries as Kate DiCamillo, Neil Gaiman, Tad Hills and more! We’ll also have giveaways, story times, crafts for the kids and some special treats available in our tea shop!

MUF: Thanks, Francine for taking time to help us  get to know your shop.  How many of our voracious readers reading this column have visited Francine’s shop, or would like to?  Comments welcome.

Sue Cowing is author of the puppet-and-boy novel You Will Call Me Drog (CarolRhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012)

 

 

The Brown Bookshelf: An Interview with Author Kelly Starling Lyons

As Laurie Edwards promised in her February 3 post, Daring to be Different, today we welcome Kelly Starling Lyons. She is here to talk about The Brown Bookshelf, a website dedicated to highlighting African American children’s authors and illustrators..

Kelly Starling Lyons is a children’s book author whose mission is to transform moments, memories and history into stories of discovery. Her books include chapter book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal; CCBC Choices-honored picture book, One Million Men and Me; Ellen’s Broom, a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book, Junior Library Guild and Bank Street Best selection and Tea Cakes for Tosh and Hope’s Gift, Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Her latest picture book is One More Dino on the Floor.  Jada Jones, her new chapter book series, debuts in September.

How did The Brown Bookshelf come about?

The Brown Bookshelf was founded by young adult authors Paula Chase-Hyman and Varian Johnson. As they launched their kidlit careers, they noticed a disturbing reality – many people had never heard of the wonderful books by black children’s book creators that were available. Paula and Varian wanted to start an initiative that would celebrate authors of color and be a resource for children, parents, teachers and librarians. Inspired by Readergirlz, they created The Brown Bookshelf to “push awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers.”

How did you get involved?

Paula invited me and author Carla Sarratt. Varian invited author/illustrator Don Tate. I was thrilled to join a team dedicated to saluting black children’s book creators. Together, we kicked off the inaugural 28 Days Later campaign, a Black History Month celebration of under-the-radar and vanguard authors and illustrators.

Who are the current members? 

They are: Varian JohnsonPaula Chase-HymanDon TateKelly Starling LyonsTameka Fryer BrownGwendolyn HooksOlugbemisola Rhuday-PerkovichCrystal AllenTracey Baptiste, and Jerry Craft.

 How did the 28 Days Later campaign start?

Paula and Varian came up with the idea for the campaign. We invited the public and publishers to submit nominations of black authors and illustrators with new books or those that had flown under the radar. We researched those suggestions, made internal recommendations and voted on the first class of honorees. Over the years, we’ve generally followed that model as we search for outstanding authors and illustrators to feature. The goal is to give parents, librarians and teachers a month of spotlights celebrating stand-outs in the kidlit world. We want to draw attention to black children’s book authors and illustrators and get their great books into the hands of kids.

What has been the response?

Every year, the response inspires us to keep going. Many people share our posts and use them as a resource for making sure their school, library and home children’s book collections match our diverse world. We hear from parents who longed to buy books that reflected their kids but had no idea how many existed until they found our site. We’ve received notes from students who have used our profiles for research for school projects. Sometimes our spotlights are the main source for information about a black children’s book creator outside of that person’s website. It’s heartwarming and affirming to know we’re making a difference. It’s also a challenge to keep pushing and giving back.

This is the tenth year for 28 Days. How will it be different this year?

In celebration of our tenth campaign, we’re doing a different format. In past years, we’ve honored eight picture book authors, eight middle-grade authors, eight young adult authors and four illustrators. This year, we’ve arranged our spotlights around themed weeks. The campaign opened with books for younger readers, featuring debut and under-the-radar picture book creators. The second week, we focused on books for older readers – middle-grade and YA authors. The third week, our theme was social justice. The last week of our campaign is inspiration week where we interview or pay tribute to children’s book creators who have paved the way for us.

How have the careers of your featured authors progressed?

One of the beautiful parts of being a member of The Brown Bookshelf is seeing the careers of black children’s book creators flourish and bloom. We featured Kwame Alexander before the Newbery, Jacqueline Woodson before the National Book Award, Javaka Steptoe before the Caldecott, Jason Reynolds back when Kirkus called him “an author worth watching.” It fills us with pride to see authors like these and others soar. Every award they win, every starred review, every accolade, is a lift for all and reminder that our books matter.

On the other side though, there are amazing black authors and illustrators whose stories are still not receiving the audience they deserve. There are veteran black children’s book creators who struggle to land deals, whose books lack the marketing support to grow a large audience, whose important books are overlooked and eventually go out of print. Our mission is to raise awareness of their work and make sure they’re honored too. We need equity in the children’s book publishing world. We have a long way to go.

What prompted the Declaration in Support of Children?

We had been trying to find a way to collectively express our outrage at the systemic racism and brutality that was devastating our kids and affirm our commitment to standing with them and for them. One of the ideas we brainstormed was an open letter. Team member Tameka Fryer Brown did an amazing job with the draft. We revised and added our thoughts. The election gave our letter even more urgency. It became an open declaration  letting kids know we have their backs.

“ . . . The stakes are too high for us to be silent. The stakes are too high for us to wait for someone else to take the lead. The stakes are too high for us to just hope things will get better. Each day, we see attempts to disenfranchise and dehumanize marginalized people and to dismiss the violence that we face. As children’s book creators, we feel a special connection and responsibility to amplify the young voices that too often go unheard . . .”

We invited others to join us in our mission to “to promote understanding and justice through our art; to bolster every child’s visceral belief that his or her life shall always be infinitely valuable.”

Illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

What has been the response?

The outpouring of support we received was incredible. Nearly 700 people signed the initial declaration with hundreds more signing the living document on our Facebook page. Our declaration was covered by School Library Journal, The Guardian and more. We’re inspired and thrilled at the hundreds of people who pledged to stand again hate and stand up for kids.

Brown Bookshelf member Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich has been leading important roundtable discussions called Where Do We Go From Here? about how to put our declaration into action. You can see them here  and here. Stay tuned for more.

 

What does the future hold for the Brown Bookshelf?

The future is limitless. We are always thinking of ways to amplify the work of black children’s book creators, support and honor the voices of children and be of service to parents librarians and teachers.

Our 28 Days Later spotlights are always available on our website. But our most recent project was working with TeachingBooks.net to showcase our features and their additional resources for our 28 Days Later honorees (Links here and here).

Another new project was expanding our social media presence. You can find us on FacebookTwitter, Instagram,  and YouTube.

We’ll have more news to share in coming months. We’re honored to be featured here. Thank you for spreading the word about what we do. That we’ve been around for a decade is a testament to the support of great people like you.