By Edith Campbell
This Q&A was originally published on Edi Campbell’s site.
Estela Bernal made her debut as an author this past May with Can You See Me Now? (Pinata/Arte Publico). As you get to know her today and find out a little more about Can You See Me Now? you’ll be impressed, but you’ll be even more impressed to know that she’s donating 100% of her proceeds to education and animal rights.
Just a little about the book. Kirkus says:
Tragedy strikes on Mandy’s 13th birthday when her father is struck by a drunk driver and killed. Now grief—both her own and her mother’s—complicates the already confusing landscape of early adolescence.
With her mother working more and more hours in the wake of her father’s death, Mandy begins spending most of her time living with her grandmother. Often the target of bullies, loner Mandy approaches Paloma to be her partner for a school project. Paloma is also a misfit, but she carries herself with a self-assured grace that Mandy finds compelling. As she becomes closer to Paloma, she learns about the practices of yoga and meditation, which are foundational in Paloma’s family. An overweight boy in class, Rogelio, is also touched by tragedy when his family’s home burns down, and Paloma invites him to join their yoga crew. As the three continue practicing together, they each begin to cultivate their own peace amid the chaos in their lives. Though each faces personal challenges, they find friendship and support in one another. Bernal has succeeded in crafting a story that acknowledges tragedy without wallowing in it, placing her emphasis on resilience and personal growth. The quick pace and distinctive characters make for a smooth, well-crafted read.
Middle-grade readers should respond to this tender story of learning to connect with others through open eyes and an open heart. (Fiction. 10-13)
Edi: Where did you grow up?
Estela: I grew up in South Texas (the Rio Grande Valley).
Edi: Do you have any pets?
Estela: I love animals and have had many pets through the years. I currently have two cats.
Edi: What were some of the first books you found as a child that turned you into a reader?
Estela: I grew up in a home where we had no books. There were no public libraries in my hometown either. Despite the lack of age-appropriate reading material, I fell in love with books as soon as I learned to read. I remember reading the Weekly Reader and whatever else I could get my hands on at school. Although I don’t remember where I got it, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth was one book I read and re-read. I’ve always been a dreamer and this book opened up an exotic, new, and very fascinating world to me.
Edi: Meat or vegetables?
Estela: Vegetables, absolutely! As an animal lover, I volunteered with many animal welfare organizations until I was able to form my own. Through it, I do community education and help provide low-cost spay/neuter services to residents’ pets in underserved communities. It would be hard to justify rescuing some animals while eating others. Besides, I find that when I eat a healthy diet, I feel so much better.
Edi: Which famous person would you most like to have write a review for your book?
Estela: So many famous and not-so-famous people come to mind. It always makes me happy to hear about celebrities and other public figures who are also great philanthropists and who help raise awareness about some very important issues facing society today. But there are also many unsung heroes quietly working to help make their communities better places to live. I sincerely believe we all have the potential to do good and that, after all, is what really matters. Two of my own favorite causes are education and animal welfare so my choice would have to be someone with similar ideals.
Edi: What three things would you like to add to a list of national treasures?
Estela: Although man-made treasures are priceless, I believe that natural treasures are absolutely essential. I’d love to see all public waterways, land (public, private, agricultural), and all living beings protected and preserved for our well-being and that of future.
Edi: Why would you be up at 3 am?
Estela: Usually, I’m only up at that time if I’m traveling and have to catch an early flight.
Edi: What book(s) are you currently in the middle of reading?
Estela: I’m currently making my way through a 100 Greatest Books for Kids list and just started Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Becoming Naomi León. I’m also reading my latest copy of Glimmer Train.
Edi: What made you decide to write about a teen who discovers yoga?
Estela: One of my nephews died accidentally a few years ago. The accident happened in front of his wife and children and I began to wonder how such a tragic event would affect any family who witnessed it. That also got me thinking about how a child, already weighed down by grief, would cope with the additional burden of parental abandonment and being bullied on top of everything else. Adolescence is tough enough as it is, and adding all this other stress can lead to such despair that anyone could easily be overwhelmed. I wanted to introduce the idea that there are alternatives to violence, that there is help even when we think there is no safe way out of certain situations, and most importantly, that there are ways to access inner peace.
When I first discovered yoga, I was going through a stressful period in my life and still remember the feeling of calm and well-being that I experienced when I was able to slow down the thoughts racing through my mind long enough to catch my breath and try to put things in perspective. The character Paloma seemed the perfect vehicle through which to introduce the topic and Mandy, of course, was the ideal student.
Edi: I’m sorry to hear your family experienced such a tragedy. I can definitely see how that experience could inspire your writing.
I haven’t had the opportunity to read Can You See Me Now?, but I do know it’s about a thirteen-year-old girl whose father dies in a car accident and her mother blames her for it. At 13 (or there about) to which adult were you the closest?
Estela: I was a very shy child and at thirteen I was closest to my mother. Because I was the youngest child in my family and my parents were old enough to be my grandparents, the fear of losing them seemed to always be in the back of my mind. If my mother wasn’t there when I got home from school or from playing with my friends, I panicked.
Edi: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Estela: Again, this is a hard question to answer because there are so many authors I admire, but I’d have to say Harper Lee ranks pretty high on my list along with Sandra Cisneros. Although their work is very different, I find the characters so easy to relate to and the stories so hard to forget.
Edi: What’s the trick to writing humor?
Estela: I’m sure there is a trick to it and I suppose part of it is to be naturally funny. I don’t set out to write humor, but because I do write about serious issues which can be hard to address when writing for a younger audience, I try to ease the tension by including bits of humor here and there as I weave the story. The humor I use is based on things that tickle my own funny bone.
Edi: What does diversity mean to you?
Estela: Diversity to me is inclusivity. I try to write about things that all readers can relate to regardless of their racial or social background because, no matter what other commonalities we may or may not share, there are certain things that we all have to experience at some point in life.
Speaking of diversity, I’m glad to see that the need for diversity in children’s literature is finally starting to get the attention it deserves. Although the need has always been there, it’s great that diversity among the writing population is also changing, however gradually.
Edi: Thanks, Estela! It’s a pleasure getting to know you!
Visit Estela’s website.
Edith Campbell is a mother, librarian, educator and quilter. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Cincinnati and MLS from Indiana University. Her passion is promoting literacy in all its many forms to teens and she does this through her blog, CrazyQuiltEdi and in her work as an Education Librarian at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. Edith currently serves as the IN State Ambassador for the United States Board on Books for Young People and is a past member of YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults selection committee.