Q&A with Writer Cynthia Harmony about her WNDB Mentorship

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Cynthia Harmony is one of ten creators awarded a year-long mentorship through We Need Diverse Books. Here’s some information about the program from their website:

“The We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program has now awarded over 50 mentorships, producing a total of 88 industry professionals and upcoming voices who have participated in one-on-one relationships since the first round of applications were received in 2015. Some of the program’s former mentees have gone on to sign with prominent industry agents, publish multiple works, or secure a debut book contract.”

Here, Cynthia is interviewed by Romy Natalia Goldberg about her experience so far:

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Q: First of all, congratulations on having been selected for the 2020 We Need Diverse Books mentorship program. Do you mind sharing where you were in your publishing journey when you applied for the WNDB mentorship?

A: Thank you Romy! I signed with my agent the summer of 2019 and I was on sub with my first story that Fall. I had applied the year before and didn’t get it. A bit before the deadline, I reread their reply. It said I had been chosen as a finalist, and they encouraged me to try again. So, I asked Natascha, my agent, and she was encouraging as well. Teresa Robeson, who is also represented by my agent, was a mentee a few years before and sold her MS. It made perfect sense.

Q: What drew you to the WNDB mentorship? 

A: I had been following WNDB since Miranda Paul shared their goals on a webinar a few years ago. A mentorship that considered my perspective as #ownvoices was crucial to me. It was my ultimate goal because it’s a unique, tailored opportunity to grow as a writer. And this is one of the few year-long opportunities out there.

Q: Your mentorship is with picture book author Rob Sanders, who is known for being an excellent writing instructor. What is it like to learn from him? 

A: Yes! I’m very lucky because he is not only a great writer, but also a great teacher. He’s said he’s not interested in editing people’s work, but in teaching them how to be better writers. He has kindly and respectfully considered my strengths and style. Then offered guidance from broad research to specific suggestions, to reimagine my stories and take them to the next level. 

Q: Any big a-ha moments or was it more of a slow and steady learning process?

A: A bit of both. Exploring different POV-narrators with specific mentor texts that I may have not considered on my own, was an a-ha moment that opened up that possibility. Tackling a parallel structure was more of a slow process. I also tend to be vague and poetic, so he has helped me tighten structure and language for younger readers.

Q: Any tips you’d like to share with fellow writers on how to make the most of mentorship opportunities?

A: At the beginning, Rob asked me many questions about my expectations and preferences for communication. I think that helped both of us picture how we would work together. I would suggest having that conversation and asking questions early on. I know he’s extremely busy with multiple book releases, writing classes and being a teacher, but I reach out, sending him revisions for whenever there’s a window. He has been great at getting back to me, and I think we’ve have covered a lot so far.  

Q: How has your mentorship changed the way you view yourself as a writer and your place in the industry?

A: It has given me the confidence to try new things and I know I’m bringing these experiences with me when I revise new stories, a sharper eye or ear (rhythm) for what works. I don’t think it has changed my place in the industry; I just know I’m extremely fortunate for this experience and hope to pay it forward one day.

Q: Please tell us more about your writing! What themes do you like to explore and what types of books are you working on?

A: My books are mostly lyrical with lots of heart. I love stories that pull your heartstrings, but also offer hope. I always bring in my culture with themes I deeply care about. But I also want to explore my range and work on a character driven story before this year ends. Humor is a bit of challenge, so I know I’ll need some help.

Q: And of course, when will we be able to see your books on the shelves? Anything you’re allowed to share with us yet?

A: My early readers and chapter books for the educational market come out next year. For picture books, I’m not allowed to say yet, but I’ll be able to share good news soon!

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Cynthia Harmony is an educational psychologist originally from Mexico City. She has lived in Playa del Carmen, Madrid, Salamanca Spain, and now calls the desert of Arizona home. She’s created exhibits and bilingual learning materials for children and science museums. She has published textbooks and writes picture books, chapter books, and early readers. She’s a translator member of The American Literary Translators Association and was awarded the 2020 We Need Diverse Books PB Mentorship. When not writing, Cynthia can be found in a museum with her kids, dancing to a Latin beat, daydreaming of tacos, or planning her next family trip.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER: Romy Natalia Goldberg is a Paraguayan-American travel and kid lit author with a love for stories about culture and communication. Her guidebook to Paraguay, Other Places Travel Guide to Paraguay, was published in 2012 and 2017 and led to work with “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and The Guardian. She is an active SCBWI member and co-runs Kidlit Latinx, a Facebook support group for Latinx children’s book authors and illustrators. Learn more at romynatalia.com

Of Myths and Monsters: A Conversation with Author Ryan Calejo

   

In 2018, Aladdin Books published Ryan Calejo’s Charlie Hernández and The League of Shadows. Fantastical and adventure-packed, this middle-grade novel introduces us to Charlie, a regular kid with some highly irregular experiences, plus a large cast of mythical figures from across Latin American and Spanish folklore.

(Learn more from our review by Jessica Walsh.)

Just released, Charlie Hernández and The Castle of Bones promises yet another heart-pounding ride with Charlie and his sidekick, Violet Rey, as they navigate an underworld teeming with witches, monsters, humanoids, and other wild and woolly creatures!

We are brimming with questions, and Ryan Calejo warmly accepted our invitation to field a few.

LiKL: Ryan, welcome to Latinxs in Kid Lit. We’re always excited to come across superbly crafted, high-adventure fiction starring Latinx characters. As you know, this combination is still too rare, leaving young Latinx readers hungry for compelling stories that mirror their experiences. As a kid, did you feel a similar disconnection?  In the Charlie Hernández series, were you consciously thinking of filling that void?

Ryan: I’ll admit, growing up, I did feel a similar disconnect. I fell in love with reading at a very early age, but back then there just wasn’t a whole lot of MG fiction featuring Latinx protagonists. I remember wondering why none of the characters in any of the books I read ever spoke Spanish, or even a little Spanglish, which, by the way, is the official language down here in South Florida—just kidding . . . sort of.

But, yes, it was definitely a goal of mine to fill that void. I believe that it’s incredibly important for kids to be able to read about characters that look and sound like them and have similar backgrounds. Every child should be able to see themselves in the books they read. Every child should be afforded the opportunity to see their inner hero. Also, with the changing demographics in our country, by not producing enough fiction featuring Latinx characters we run the risk of alienating a huge portion of our young readers and depriving them not only of the joys of reading but also of all its many benefits—which would be quite a shame, not to mention extremely unfair to those children. With so much technology out there to distract today’s youth, we need to be focusing on ways to get them excited about books and one of the easiest ways to accomplish that is by writing characters they can identify with. But thanks to wonderful organizations like Latinxs in Kid Lit I believe we are going to see a lot more diverse fiction in the years to come. And that’s a wonderful thing indeed!

LiKL: Your Charlie Hernández novels feature mythical figures drawn from the ancient folk tales of South and Central America, as well as Spain. Please share more about finding inspiration in myth and how you decided to build your stories around these tales.

Ryan: Myths have always fascinated me. Growing up I wasn’t exactly the best-behaved kid on the planet, so to keep me from running amok my abuelitas would entertain me by telling me stories—all the wonderful myths and legends they’d heard as children. Some were heartwarming, others funny, and quite a few were actually pretty terrifying! For some reason I remember the scary ones the most. Probably because my grandmothers used those to try to frighten me into behaving! I can’t tell you how many times I heard: “¡Comete toda la comida, si no La Cuca se enoja!” Or, “¡No te levante del sofa que La Mano Peluda te va a cojer!” (A line which my grandmothers loved to tell me right before lunchtime, when one of my favorite moves was to wait for them to become distracted, then jailbreak my little cousins from their high chairs!)

But the truth is, every single one of those stories, from the terrifying to the hilarious, became ingrained in me. They became a huge part of my everyday life, and as a result it was easy to imagine them existing in the real world because, in my young imagination, that was where they’d always existed. As a little kid listening to those stories and growing up in such an ecologically diverse place like South Florida, I always felt as if the supernatural was lurking just around the corner, hiding under my bed or somewhere deep in the Everglades, so building a novel around these myths felt quite natural, almost like an extension of my childhood. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of fun writing the books. But it’s also been a deeply personal experience because my goal was to pass these myths and legends down to the next generation just like my grandmothers passed them down to me. As funny and entertaining as most of them are, these tales are actually cultural time capsules wrapped up in story; they give us incredible insight into what our ancestors believed, what concerns they had, what knowledge they felt was vital to pass on to their children. And it’s this richness of culture that has always inspired me to dig deeper into these myths—and even write stories about them!

LiKL: We’d love to hear about your path to publication, as well as your writing practices.

Ryan: Writing became a thing for me in elementary school. And that’s thanks to my wonderful fifth grade teacher—Hi, Mrs. Homans! She assigned us a writing project with the only requirement being the length: One page, front and back. I remember coming home and brainstorming ideas with my mom. It was a blast! And I’ve been scribbling down stories ever since! As far as writing practices, I do try to hit a daily word count—about twelve hundred words—but I don’t make it a huge deal. For me, writing has always been fun and that’s exactly how I want to keep it. My advice for aspiring writers would be just that: have fun! Don’t make writing a stressful process. Write because you love to write. And remember: even the unruliest of chapters can be tamed with the mighty backspace button!

LiKL: So what is Ryan Calejo working on next?

RyanI’m currently working on the third book in the series, which I’m super excited about. A slew of new myths will be joining the cast and, of course, there will be plenty of laughs and adventure! I think readers are really going to enjoy it—fingers crossed! For sneak peeks and cover reveals, follow me on Twitter @thebookglutton and on Instagram @ryancalejo!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ryan Calejo was born and raised in south Florida. He graduated from the University of Miami with a BA. He teaches swimming to elementary school students, chess to middle school students, and writing to high school students. Having been born into a family of immigrants and growing up in the so-called “Capital of Latin America,” Ryan knows the importance of diversity in our communities and is passionate about writing books that children of all ethnicities can relate to.

 

A Writer Belongs Everywhere: Stories from a Writing Workshop for Middle School Girls

 

By Tracey T. Flores, Ph.D.

On a hot evening in June, four Latina girls, Rocky, Reyna, Blanca and Elizabeth, entering ninth and tenth grade, and their parents, Valente, Samuel, Alma and Rose, gather at the local university for an evening of drawing, writing and sharing. In the small meeting room, sitting side-by-side at tables, girls and their parents busily sketch, in pencil and crayon, a drawing in response to the question: “Where are you from? / ¿De dónde eres?”

Walking around the room, I notice many different sketches. Rocky sketches a self-portrait of herself with wavy brown hair and blonde highlights. With a blue crayon, her father, Valente, sketches the flag of Honduras. Alma shows her daughter a sketch of the world with México at the center, as Blanca sketches a large brick house with two small girls with braids smiling in front of it. Rose colors the hair on her stick figure black, while her daughter, Elizabeth, draws a girl looking into a small mirror while putting makeup on her face. Samuel finishes his sketch of the U.S. flag and the flag of México, intersecting the shape of a heart between them, while his daughter, Reyna, colors the red tongue of the small dog she has sketched.

Rocky’s self-portrait

As families finish their sketches and begin sharing, the room becomes alive with stories. They share stories of family camping adventures, cherished memories of times spent with abuelitos, inside jokes shared between hermanas and of childhoods growing up in México y Honduras. Listening to each other, they nod in agreement, ask questions and connect through the collective telling and sharing of stories and histories.

Tonight is the first night that these Latina girls and their parents have come together to write and draw stories from their lived experiences. Over the next six weeks, as they participate in Somos Escritores/We are Writers, we will read and discuss a variety of bilingual (English/Spanish) print and digital texts, explore our experiences and histories, and use drawing, writing and oral storytelling as tools for self-expression and self-reflection. Somos Escritores is a writing workshop that brings Latina girls (grades 6-12) and their parents together for the intergenerational exchange of stories and knowledge through drawing, writing and oral storytelling.

After sharing our sketches, we read and discuss two poems, Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon and De Donde Yo Soy by Levi Romero. In these poems, poets explore their histories and describe through vivid language and detail all the people, places, moments and memories that shape who they are and how they walk in the world. These poems serve as an invitation for girls and their parents to further explore their lives while considering the ways their familial, cultural and linguistic histories shape who they are and who they are becoming. Finally, girls and their parents take their drawing to writing, using these poems as inspiration for crafting their own Where I’m From / De Donde Soy Yo poems.

Reyna wrote, “I’m from the family of whom love me very much. I’m from the land of the proud and brave. I’m from who I made myself to be.”

Samuel reads, “I am from a humble family, who lived poor but was rich in love.”

Blanca wrote, “I am from a not so perfect family, but from a family who is perfect in its own way.”

Holding her picture up, Alma shares, “Yo soy de un lugar cerca de la tierra y el amor de la galaxia.”

Alma’s sketch

As a facilitator and writer alongside girls and their parents in Somos Escritores, I have the honor and privilege of bearing witness to their lived experiences through our collective sharing of stories. Their stories welcome me into their lives, allowing me to learn about their experiences and realities in their own words. Through their stories, I learn about who they truly are, as Latinx girls, women and men, what matters most to them and what they envision for their futures.

I learn that Rocky, Reyna, Blanca and Elizabeth are fighting to be seen and heard. They are socially conscious girls who are aware of the negative stereotypes that society places upon them, as Latina girls. Through their actions and words, they are speaking to society in powerfully loud ways by excelling in school, cultivating their many passions and setting goals for their future selves. These girls refuse to be defined by society’s narrow definitions and views of who they are and what they are capable of achieving. Collectively they are working to be the change, the voice that our world needs.

I learn that Valente, Samuel, Alma and Rose are courageous, supportive and loving mothers and fathers. These parents provide their daughters with a solid foundation to pursue their passions and accomplish their goals. They work tirelessly, both on the job and at home, to meet their daughters’ personal, social, and academic needs.

At the close of our first workshop, I ask girls and parents to reflect upon why we must write and share our stories. Each girl and parent writes and shares their reflection, speaking to the importance of hearing different perspectives, realizing they are not alone and learning valuable life lessons. Finally, Valente is the last to share his reflection with the group. He reads, “I have to write because I want to be an example for my daughter and let her know my story and that I’m here.”

Note: Somos Escritores/We Are Writers was imagined from my work alongside my 2nd grade students in family writing workshops. This project is part of my dissertation work and has evolved into a writing workshop for Latina girls (grades 6-12). Twitter: @Las_Escritoras

Tracey T. Flores is an assistant professor of language and literacy in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a former English Language Development (ELD) and English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, working for eight years alongside culturally and linguistically diverse students and families in schools throughout Glendale and Phoenix Arizona. Her research interests include Latina girls’ language and literacy practices, family and community literacies and the writing instruction and development of Latinx youth. Tracey can be reached at: tflores@austin.utexas.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May and June 2018 Latinx Book Deals

 

Compiled by Cecilia Cackley

This is a bi-monthly series keeping track of the book deals announced by Latinx writers and illustrators. The purpose of this series is to celebrate book deals by authors and illustrators in our community and to advocate for more of them. If you are an agent and you have a Latinx client who just announced a deal, you can let me know on Twitter, @citymousedc. If you are a Latinx author or illustrator writing for children or young adults, and you just got a book deal, send me a message and we will celebrate with you! Here’s to many more wonderful books in the years to come.

May 1

Claudia Gabel at HarperCollins has bought Meteor by Anna-Marie McLemore (l.) and Tehlor Kay Mejia, in which two friends, one made of stardust and one fighting to save her family’s diner, take on their small town’s 50th annual pageant and talent competition in the hopes that they can change their town’s destiny, and their own. Publication is set for 2020. Author Agents: Taylor Martindale Kean at Full Circle Literary and Jim McCarthy at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret.

 

May 3

Amy Fitzgerald at Lerner/Carolrhoda has bought M.G. Velasco’s debut middle grade novel, Cardslinger. Set in 1881, the novel follows 13-year-old Jason “Shuffle” Jones on a quest to find his missing father, the creator of a popular card game that may offer clues to his whereabouts. Publication is slated for fall 2019. Author Agent: Dawn Frederick at Red Sofa Literary.

May 8

None.

May 10

None.

May 15

Karen Boersma and Karen Li at Owlkids have acquired world rights to Malaika’s Costume and Malaika’s Winter Carnival author Nadia L. Hohn‘s nonfiction picture book about Louise Bennett-Coverley, a Jamaican poet, performer, and champion of Jamaican Patois popularly known as Miss Lou. Publication is slated for fall 2019; the author represented herself.

Olivia Valcarce and Aimee Friedman at Scholastic have acquired Yamile Saied Méndez‘s Blizzard Besties, in which a 12-year-old girl teams up with new friends at a ski resort to rescue her brother who might be stranded in a blizzard. Publication is scheduled for December 26, 2018. Author Agent: Linda Camacho at Gallt and Zacker Literary Agency.

May 17

None

May 22

None.

May 24

Amara Hoshijo at Soho Teen has bought Latinx author Michelle Ruiz Keil‘s debut novel, All of Us with Wings, a YA fantasy imbued with elements of Aztec mythology. The book follows Xochi, a teenage governess living with her young ward Pallas’s glamorous rockstar family in San Francisco. When Xochi and Pallas perform a cathartic punk-rock ritual on the Equinox, they accidentally summon a pair of ancient creatures determined to avenge transgressions from Xochi’s troubled past. Publication is set for summer 2019. Author agent: Hannah Fergesen at KT Literary.

May 30

None.

June 5

Jessica MacLeish at HarperCollins has acquired, in a two-book deal, Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros. The #ownvoices middle grade debut novel follows middle schooler Efrén as he takes on increased home responsibilities, while also dealing with a contentious school election and a fight with his best friend, after his mother is deported to Mexico and his father takes on a second job to earn the money to bring her back to the U.S. Publication is slated for early 2020, with an untitled second novel to follow in 2021. Author agent: Deborah Warren at East West Literary Agency.

June 7

None.

June 12

Allison Cohen at Running Press Kids has acquired world rights to a picture book by Tracey Kyle (l.), tentatively titled Alpaca Pati, about an alpaca who loves to dress up and what happens when she learns her beautiful coat will be sheared. Yoss Sanchez will illustrate. Publication is scheduled for fall 2019. Illustrator agent: Aurora Meyer.

June 14

None.

June 26

Brian Geffen at Henry Holt has acquired world rights to Blackwater, a debut YA graphic novel by Jeannette Arroyo and Ren Graham. When Tony, a restless star athlete, and Eli, a quiet outsider, form an unlikely friendship in their small Maine town, they find themselves tracking down the source of a werewolf curse and heeding the warnings of ghosts, all while exploring their budding feelings for each other and dealing with typical high school drama. Publication is scheduled for 2020.

June 28

Johnny Temple at Akashic/Black Sheep has acquired world English rights to Party: A Mystery, the first picture book by Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid, to be illustrated by Ricardo Cortés. Initially published in the New Yorker in 1980, the story tells of three children flitting about an extravagant anniversary party for the Nancy Drew novels, until they see something scary that can’t be unseen. Publication is set for spring 2019. Author agent: Jeffrey Posternak at Wylie Agency. Illustrator agent: Stephen Barbara at InkWell Management.

 

 

Cackley_headshotCecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 5: Angela Cervantes

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the fifth in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Angela Cervantes.

Her latest middle grade novel, Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring releases tomorrow!! Go get this book with the beautiful cover and awesome premise. Here’s a little more about it:

A room locked for fifty years.
A valuable peacock ring.
A mysterious brother-sister duo.
Paloma Marquez is traveling to Mexico City, birthplace of her deceased father, for the very first time. She’s hoping that spending time in Mexico will help her unlock memories of the too-brief time they spent together.
While in Mexico, Paloma meets Lizzie and Gael, who present her with an irresistible challenge: The siblings want her to help them find a valuable ring that once belonged to beloved Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Finding the ring means a big reward — and the thanks of all Mexico. What better way to honor her father than returning a priceless piece of jewelry that once belonged to his favorite artist. But the brother and sister have a secret. Do they really want to return the ring, or are they after something else entirely?

And now more about Angela: She is the beloved and award-winning author of several middle grade fiction novels. Her first novel, Gaby, Lost and Found, was named Best Youth Chapter book by the International Latino Book Awards and a Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of 2014. Angela’s second middle grade novel, Allie, First At Last, received a starred-review from Kirkus and was a finalist for Florida’s Sunshine State Young Readers Award. Angela’s next middle-grade novel is the junior novelization of Disney Pixar’s animated film, Coco, was released in October 2017. Angela’s fourth novel, Me, Frida and the Secret of the Peacock Ring, will be released by Scholastic on March 27, 2018.

Angela Cervantes

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A. My love for books inspired me to be a writer. Books were my first friends, and I relied on them to get me through some tough times, like my parents’ divorce, the loss of my abuelos, and issues around poverty. At an early age, I decided that I wanted to tell stories about girls like me. There’s nothing else I’ve ever wanted to be in my life.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

A. It was my agent, Adriana Domínguez at Full Circle Literary who diagnosed me with a promising voice for middle grade fiction. Once I let that soak in, I knew she was right. I dived head-first, and I’m so happy I did, because I love middle grade novels and writing for middle grade students.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

A. How much time do you have? There are so many! Growing up, I was obsessed with the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. They are still my all-time favorite books. More recently, I’m a big fan of Rita Williams-Garcia. Her books, One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven are amazing. Other faves that I’ve read recently include Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan; The Smoking Mirror (Book One) by David Bowles; Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper; Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai; Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson and The First Rule of Punk by Celia Pérez. I also love, love, love Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe García McCall.

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

A. Don’t throw away your stories. They’re not stupid. Someday, you’ll wish you could read them again. 🙂

Q. Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

A. Middle grade novels are important because young people need a safe place to let their dreams, curiosities and imagination play.

 

   

 

 

photo by Saryna A. Jones

Cindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books (2015). She will have an essay in Life Inside My Mind, which releases 4/10/2018 with Simon Pulse. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Guest Post by Author NoNieqa Ramos: Voice Lessons

 

By NoNieqa Ramos

I’ll never forget the sweltering summer in NY, when my soul mate and I dined with a friend and editor from a NYC publishing house, partially because we spent 300 dollars on appetizers. I mean for 20 bucks we could have had arroz con habichuelas y maduros and a friggin bistec, you know?

But we had all gotten into the friend zone–where you want to be when your friend happens to be a Big Wig–and I was loving being back in Manhattan, where I used to bus to the Port Authority and cab it to the Village to get various body parts pierced.

The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary was a Work-in-Progress. I met said editor at an SCBWI pitch conference and she had told me, “I was the reason she came to these conferences.” That even though the plot of my manuscript was “crazy town”– I was writing about a Korean boy named Yin Coward who shot his nemesis and true love and ended up hiding in the walls of his Catholic school–my “voice” was “OMG.”

Yin Coward later got rejected by a hotshot agent who said “Alas, it had too much voice,” and was eventually put to bed in a C drive. Ultimately, years later, when my agent Emily Keyes sent the completed The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary to my friend and editor at the aforementioned publishing house, she declined, saying “It was too beautiful.” Now I sit with reviews from Kirkus calling my voice “hard to process” but “inimitable” and “unique.” I’m speaking at the ALAN Conference at NCTE to discuss The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary on the Panel: “Giving Voices to Difficult Experiences.” BookList says my writing is “exceptional” and “I’m a voice to watch.”

It fascinates me that Kirkus called the syntax of DDG a “stylistic choice.” What’s of great fascination to me, is as a Nuyorican from the Bronx, it wasn’t until my thirties that I found my own voice, my own place at the table, so to speak. I’ve spent my life, like my protagonist Macy Cashmere, being defined by other people.

In the Bronx, I was 100 Puerto Rican. Let me ‘splain. With my people, it was a source of pride and defiance. In my family, my elders had started in the barrio and worked their way from poverty to being lab techs, social workers, principals, and vice-presidents in the ‘burbs.

In my reality, I learned, there were hidden definitions. So there was this Italian boy I had a crush on. He used to give me extra cannolis with my orders. I’m thirteen. One day I’m walking home and he’s standing on the corner.

He’s saying things like come over here and talk to me. I smiled, but kept walking, not knowing, really, what to do with my skinny-ass self. Then the cursing started. I was a Puerto Rican slut. (Whaaat?) etc. etc. This was one of many delightful experiences with race. I learned boobs weren’t the only thing to enter a room first. My brownness did, too.

Back to that editor and friend. There was wine and three-hundred-dollar lobster rolls. Did I want an actual entree? Well, having a need for food, shelter, and insurance–I had a Catholic teacher’s budget at the time–made that a hard NO.

Anyway, there was witty repartee to fill me up. Have I mentioned, I’m that English teacher that delights in witty repartee, the use of active voice, and sentence diagramming? Then I did it. I code switched. Can’t remember exactly what ungrammatical thing I said. But I do remember being corrected by this friend, this editor, this white lady in public like I was a child.

About the English teacher thing. Command of the English language has empowered me (and my family) throughout life to get awards, attention, scholarships, employment, respect, and lots of comments like “What are you?” (Puerto Rican and literate, that’s what I am bee–)

Losing the Spanish language has done the same, and is one of the biggest tragedies in my cultural life. My protagonist Macy Cashmere’s ungrammatical language is not a “stylistic choice.” It is an outright rebellion. Nod if you feel me. As Macy would say, “Just because you monolingual motherfoes can’t speak my language ain’t my problem. I mean, you could read Faulkner, but you can’t get me because I say ‘a’ instead of ‘an’?”

The thing is, we need diverse voices that speak grammatically correct. We need diverse voices that crush stereotypes like cockroaches under chancletas. We writers love to write from the perspective of the diamonds-in-the-rough who also happen to be literary geniuses. Well, guess what?

Macy’s there, too. If you’re not going to make room at the table for her, she’s bound to do something about it. Maybe sit right on your lap. Maybe toss the table. You find her story hard to read? Intense? Remember the Macys of the world are living that story. She’s been silenced all her life. She doesn’t look right. She doesn’t act right. But she’s stronger than you. If the whole damn world ended, she’d still be standing because her world has ended a thousand times. But what, you want to filter her? Don’t get me wrong, I gave Macy Miss Black. I want Macy to make it. I  want to get her counselors and tutors and have her rescued by librarians.

But Macy doesn’t exist for me or for you. The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary is BY Macy and FOR Macy. As Kirkus said, Macy is “aggressive, angry, and intimidating.” And, hello, that’s because she doesn’t get the luxury of magic powers or magic foster parents. One of my foster kids left me to be adopted by her aunt. Years later, I found her back on a foster kids website–now having been abused by her mom and rejected by the only sane relative she had—hoping desperately for someone to be her “forever family” at the age of thirteen. The age kids almost NEVER get adopted. This book is for that kid. Take a listen.

CLICK HERE for our review of The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary.

 

NoNieqa Ramos spent her childhood in the Bronx, where she started her own publishing company and sold books for twenty-five cents until the nuns shut her down. With the support of her single father and her tias, she earned dual master’s degrees in creative writing and education at the University of Notre Dame. As a teacher, she has dedicated herself to bringing gifted-and-talented education to minority students and expanding access to literature, music, and theater for all children. A frequent foster parent, NoNieqa lives in Ashburn, Virginia, with her family. She can be found on Twitter at @NoNiLRamos.