By Lila Quintero Weaver
We’re excited to host a conversation with acclaimed author Guadalupe Garcia McCall. Her first book, Under the Mesquite, won the 2012 Pura Belpré Award and was a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award. Her newest work is Summer of the Mariposas, a rich work of fantasy fiction doubly inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey and the mythology of Mexico.
Lila: Guadalupe, congratulations on your wonderful writing career! Welcome to Latin@s in Kid Lit! Let’s get started with a question you’ve probably heard before:
Under the Mesquite is a powerfully intimate coming of age story told in verse. It’s a quiet book. On the other hand, Summer of the Mariposas is a high-energy road trip full of other-worldly characters and action scenes. Describe the paths that led to these diverse creative choices.
Guadalupe: Interestingly enough, both books were born out of my classroom experiences. Under the Mesquite came about because I was teaching my students how to write poetry. I wrote for them, as a way of modeling how easy and accessible poetry is if they focus on using their memories to write poems full of life’s experiences. After many years of teaching poetry (and collecting my little poems in my poetry unit folder), I realized that I had a good size collection of poems about my childhood which I could submit for publication. With the help of Emily Hazel, my editor at Lee & Low Books, that collection eventually evolved into Under the Mesquite.
After Under the Mesquite, I was bouncing around ideas for my next book, not really committed to anything, when one of my female students made the comment that all the books we read in class (we were studying Homer’s Odyssey) were about men—men having adventures, men defeating monsters, and men becoming heroes. This really upset my female students, and on her way out of my classroom, that same young lady told her friend, “It’s not fair. We need our own Odyssey!”
And that was it. That was my “light bulb” moment. Actually, it was more like a giant, blinding spotlight cast over a dark, neglected corner of our classroom that I couldn’t ignore as I drove home that afternoon. My girls were right. They needed to see themselves in literature. They needed their own stories to show the world that they are strong, and courageous, and smart. So I took out the sticky notes and started plotting out a Girl-Power adventure story using the Hero’s Journey just for them, for my “muchachas.” But as I worked on it, something else came to mind. Why use the same old Greek gods and monsters? Why not use our own mythology? We have just as many great characters to choose from in Mexican lore. And so it began, the frenzied scribbling and joyous giggling that comes when you first start plotting out a story—the discovery, the freedom, the breakthroughs—it’s all very intoxicating! I have to admit, I had a lot of fun writing Summer of the Mariposas because I knew my girls were hungry to read something like it.
Lila: Along with its supernatural elements, Summer of the Mariposas carries an understated but clear message of feminine strength and resilience. You force your characters to confront family challenges and heartbreaks. What do you hope to give young readers through this story?
Guadalupe: When I started writing Summer of the Mariposas, I wanted to tell a fun female story. However, I also knew I wanted to showcase the strength and resilience that it takes for a young lady to come of age and embrace womanhood in our society. I wanted young girls to believe in themselves and trust that a female is just as equipped to take care of herself and her loved ones as her male counterpart. That they are lacking nothing—that all young ladies have the courage to take life by force and the wisdom to attain their goals.
Lila: I’m sure you’ve been attuned to the recent conversation on diversity in literature, especially in children’s and YA publishing, which has stirred up a lot of media attention. One article quoted Matt de la Peña as saying, “Where’s the African American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss?” As a Latina writer, you must have well-formed opinions on this topic. What are your concerns? And what are your dreams for diversity in kid lit?
Guadalupe: Matt and I must be on the same wavelength because I asked a similar question about a year and a half ago, and I posted it on Facebook in a conversation with my publisher about gaps in children’s literature. We were talking about genre-specific gaps, and I asked a question along the lines of “Where is the Mexican-American Johnny Tremain?” I think it is very important that we start answering these questions. Not with words, but through action.
Listen, this fence is about to crumble. It’s got so many holes in it. The change in the face of our nation (diversity in our classrooms) is not forthcoming. The Change is here. The Change is upon us. We “have” diverse classrooms—and our students are missing the sound of their voice in the narratives available to them. It’s too late to “think” about it or “research” it or “plan” for it. No. It’s time to take action. Publishers need to be addressing the fact that there are not enough diverse children’s and YA books to fill the huge gaps in children’s literature. They need to be actively seeking out new and existing talent and publishing the books that will fill those gaps.
Lila: In addition to authoring books with strong Latino themes, you’ve also taught middle school (and now high school) in Texas. What are your thoughts about turning young Latinos into readers and writers?
Guadalupe: There is this great attitude in South Texas, especially along the Rio Grande Valley, border area, and that is that books are amazing and that their creators, namely authors, are ROCK STARS! The teachers, administrators, district personnel, and especially the community have made it their mission to make books and their creators accessible to children. They seek out grants and special programs and make every concerted effort to continue to feature books and their authors in their schools. They see reading and writing as the greatest assets, the most important tools in their children’s toolbox. I really admire that. I wish that was the case with every teacher, every administrator, every district, and every community in the world. Life would be sweet if we were all about education. I know that I’m being very naive here (with all the other problems to be solved in the world), but I do truly believe in building life-long learners through reading and writing! Reading and writing make up the foundation of learning, and a good book can draw a child in as well as any electronic gadget if presented in the right light, with the right attitude, and with the same attention corporations give to marketing video games, apps, and cell phones. It would mean flipping a Goliath of a paradigm on its ear, and the willingness to take on the fight, but it can and should be done, for our children’s sake!
Lila: Let’s get practical. You work a full-time job and yet somehow manage to write complex novels. What are the habits that help you produce? Is there a piece of writing advice that a mentor gave you which still rings true? What have you discovered on your own that guides you in attacking a new project?
Guadalupe: My habits? Well, I sit down every day to tap at those keys. Sometimes I take a cup of coffee to the porch and write as the sun rises on the weekends. Sometimes, I write the minute I get home from work. And sometimes, I pull over on the side of the road and write in my vehicle on the way to the grocery store because I don’t want to lose that terrific line. Most often, though, I get up in the middle of the night and write in my jammies because that’s when my brain wants to create.
Whatever the case may be, it’s important for me to write every day, to “touch the work every single day!” I heard that somewhere, or maybe I read it. I’m not sure which, but it’s very true. I find that the longer I stay away from writing, the harder it is to get back in the groove of it. It’s like being an athlete. If you don’t keep working out, you lose muscle, and you won’t win any races or bring any trophies home if you don’t work out every day. So this is the advice I pass on to my students,” Work out those writing muscles every day. Read. Write. Read. Write. Read. Write. Oh, and don’t be afraid to catch the latest movie or keep up with your favorite TV show. It’s good research! ”
Lila: Speaking of new projects, you must be working on something. What can you share about it?
Guadalupe: I am working on a YA historical set in Texas during the Mexican Revolution, after the discovery of the Plan de San Diego and all the strife and conflicts of that time period on this side of the border. It’s something that is very close to my heart because I think it’s an important time in “our history” that hasn’t been explored or talked about much in our classrooms. The maltreatment and persecution of Mexican Americans in South Texas during that time is either ignored or glossed over in our textbooks and there is literally little to nothing in YA fiction that touches on the struggles Hispanics experienced during that devastating time period in American history. I really can’t share too much of the plot except to say that it is my attempt at filling in a gap and answering the questions, “Where is the Mexican-American Johnny Tremain? Where is our historical perspective, our ancestral Mexican-American voice?”
Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low Books), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpre Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist and received the Ellen Hopkins Promising Poet Award, the Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Reviews’ Best Teen Books of 2011 among many other honors and accolades. Her second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction Award, was an Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Finalist, and was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year.
Her poems for adults have appeared in more than twenty literary journals across the country and abroad, and her poems for children are included in The Poetry Friday Anthology, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Ms. Garcia McCall was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas (the setting of both her novels and most of her poems). She is currently a high school English teacher in the San Antonio area and lives in Somerset with her husband, Jim, 2 dogs (Baxter and Blanca), 1 cat (Luna), and her two (of three) college age sons, Steven and Jason.