An Interview with J.C. Cervantes, Author of The Storm Runner

 

By Cecilia Cackley

The Storm Runner, which releases tomorrow, is the first book inspired by Latinx culture under the new Disney imprint Rick Riordan Presents. As in Rick Riordan’s many other series, it features a pre-teen who gets pulled into adventures with various gods and mythological creatures. I was able to talk to J.C. Cervantes about her process writing the book and what it’s like to be part of the Rick Riordan Presents team.

Q: How did you get connected with Rick Riordan and his imprint?

A: My agent sent me a well-timed email as soon as Disney sent out the Rick Riordan Presents announcement. I happened to have a story in mind that had been lingering in the vault. I nearly squealed with excitement. So, I polished the first three chapters and synopsis and after my agent submitted, we got a call the next day! What was it like working with him? Intimidating. Surreal. Amazing. Terrifying. Thrilling. Humbling. All of the above?

Q: The Storm Runner is an adventure novel, whereas your debut Tortilla Sun is a family story set in a close-knit village. Was your writing process for each book different in terms of plotting and character development? 

A: It was totally different. When I wrote Tortilla Sun, I had never written a book before so there was sort of an innocent navigating my way through the thorny dark with no idea where I was going vibe. But I had more experience by the time I wrote The Storm Runner and had already forced (yes, forced) myself to learn how to outline and plot in ways that I had been SO resistant to before.

Q: What was your research like for this book, not just the Maya aspects to the story, but also for your protagonist with a physical disability?

A: I relied on stories my grandmother told me to get me started and then hit the books (eight plus) to really challenge what I thought I knew. Interestingly, there were discrepancies even between texts. Additionally, I worked with two Mayanists, specifically on language aspects and pronunciation. I also watched several documentaries. One of the great challenges with learning more about the Maya and their pantheon is that most of their ancient written records were destroyed by the Spanish.

In terms of writing a child with a disability, it was important to me that his disability not define him, that I be mindful of the visibility and invisibility of his experiences and his feeling that he didn’t belong. So, I drew on personal experience with people/children I know with disabilities, but I also worked closely with a special education scholar who has dedicated her life to teaching and working with kids with disabilities. She read the manuscript as well to ensure I remained mindful and aware of my character and his experience in an authentic way.

Q: For kids who read this book and immediately want to learn more about Maya culture and cosmo-vision, what books or resources would you point them towards?

There are so many amazing books out there but depending on age range I would recommend the Popol Vuh, The Pocket Dictionary of Aztec and Mayan Gods and Goddesses, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aztec and Maya, the Lost History of the Aztec and Maya, and for fun, a picture book titled: You Wouldn’t Want to be a Mayan Soothsayer. There are also some really wonderful videos on YouTube like The Underworld of the Mayan Gods produced by the History channel. Warning: it’s pretty creepy!

Q: Middle grade has for a long time been the age category with the least Latinx representation. That feels like it’s starting to change, with high-profile debuts from people like Celia Perez and Pablo Cartaya and now your addition to an imprint from a middle grade superstar. What advice do you have for other Latinx writers who want to write for middle grade readers?

A: Begin with what you know, what you grew up with. Tap into the magic that is so prevalent in our cultures and let that carry you through the story. Don’t let anyone tell you that your experience doesn’t matter or isn’t ______ enough (fill in the blank) or doesn’t align with the “norm.” Read loads of books, especially diverse titles, mentor, and support diverse writers. Be authentic. And above all honor the kids you write for. They are smart and funny and so eager to see themselves and their lives reflected in the pages of books.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORAbout the author: Jen Cervantes is an award-winning children’s author. In addition to other honors, she was named a New Voices Pick by the American Booksellers Association for her debut novel, Tortilla Sun. The Storm Runner‘s sequel, entitled The Fire Keeper, is slated for release in 2019. Keep up with Jen’s books and appearances at her official site.

Jen is also a member of Las Musas, the first collective of women and non binary Latinx MG and YA authors to come together in an effort to support and amplify each other’s debut or sophomore novels in US children’s literature. You can learn more about them by here.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER: Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. Learn more at http://www.witsendpuppets.com.

Book Review: Pitch Dark by Courtney Alameda

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Set against a future of marauding space scavengers and deadly aliens who kill with sound, here is a frightening, fast-paced YA adventure from the author of the acclaimed horror novel, Shutter.

Tuck has been in stasis on the USS John Muir, a ship that houses Earth’s most valued artifacts—its natural resources. Parks and mountains are preserved in space.

Laura belongs to a shipraiding family, who are funded by a group used to getting what they want. And they want what’s on the Muir.

Tuck and Laura didn’t bargain on working together, or battling mutant aliens who use sound to kill. But their plan is the only hope for their crews, their families, and themselves.

In space, nobody can hear you scream . . . but on the John Muir, the screams are the last thing you’ll hear.

MY TWO CENTS: I read Shutter years ago and was blown away by the seemingly effortless nature of Courtney Alameda’s genre-bending craft. She managed to craft a world that made an unquestionable amount of sense, and it combined disparate elements you don’t often see in the same story. Pitch Dark is no exception. Somehow, Alameda has been able to borrow the visceral, gory, and heart-stopping brilliance of a film like Alien and mix it with the adventure of Tomb Raider or Uncharted. Oh, and there’s also a generation ship. (Sort of.) And horrific monsters. And burgeoning love. And commentary on subjugation, imperialism, and racism.

AND THIS IS ALL IN THE SAME BOOK.

Pitch Dark wastes no time, and while there’s a bit of a steep learning curve at the beginning—the book has alternating first-person narratives that don’t seem connected at all—the worldbuilding pays off just past thirty pages into the book. We are introduced to the shipraiding universe of Laura Cruz, who is exuberant about her love for what her family does. (It’s a neat twist on the trope of kids hating the family business.) She thrives when she gets to dig deep into the history of humanity… which is a big deal within Pitch Dark, set over four hundred years in the future. Humanity is haphazardly spread about the galaxy after a terrorist attack forced them to abandon Earth, so the Cruz family mission is an integral part of the story.

Then there’s Tuck, the nerdy, reference-happy member of the John Muir, one of the ships that left Earth nearly four hundred years prior. He awakes from stasis to find out he’s been unconscious far longer than he was supposed to be. Even worse, something contaminated the stasis machines, and his fellow humans have…well, let’s just say they’ve evolved since then.

Of the two, I preferred Laura’s narration more than Tuck’s, though Tuck grew on me over time. In Laura Cruz, Alameda has crafted a memorable and awe-inspiring character, one I hope is the focus of other books in the future. (Pitch Dark is a standalone, but this could easily be a multi-book series.) Laura’s Spanglish is comforting to read, since I grew up with it in Southern California, and the Cruz family is an eternal delight. If you’re looking for a book with a loving Latinx family, look no further than Pitch Dark.

And if you want an addictive, insightful page-turner, get Pitch Dark for that reason, too. This book is downright horrifying, and when you learn what the Muir crew became, it becomes a significant source of tension and terror within the novel. The two storylines intersect (literally so!) in a shocking way, and seeing each character deal with the world of the other character’s ship is satisfying and exciting. It helps that Alameda manages to imbue all of this with an inventive social commentary about the nature of imperialism and control, most of which appears in Laura’s POV. Who controls a story? What version gets told? And how do you resist a narrative that purports to make you a villain to everyone else?

Above all: I had a blast reading this book, which I devoured in just two sittings. I’ve been itching for more YA horror, and Alameda absolutely delivers. The pacing is incredibly quick, the dialogue is snappy and contains an in-universe context for all the pop culture references, and there are a few sequences in here that made me want to crawl under the covers and never come out. Bravo, Courtney Alameda.

TEACHING TIPS: I imagine that most teachers might shy away from a horror novel, and admittedly, Pitch Dark is very, very violent and gory. But the visceral story is part of the extended metaphor for the environment of current day politics. Alameda crafts a subplot between Laura Cruz and the Smithson family that touches on issues of consent, sexual assault, and colonialism, particularly since the Smithson family is horrifically desperate to do whatever they can to center anthropology on themselves and their own power. There’s a lot of potential for discussion in the interactions between the Cruz family and Tuck, which touch on racism, stereotypes, and white savior tropes.

Courtney Author Photos2013_117.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: A veteran bookseller and librarian, Courtney Alameda now spends her days writing thriller and horror novels. Her debut novel, Shutter, was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award and hailed as a “standout in the genre” by School Library Journal. Her forthcoming novels include the science fiction/horror mashup, Pitch Dark (Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends 2018), and Seven Deadly Shadows, an urban fantasy set in Japan. (Co-authored with Valynne Maetani. HarperTeen 2018). Courtney holds a degree in English literature with an emphasis in creative writing. She is represented by John M. Cusick of Folio Literary. A northern California native, she now resides in Utah with her husband, a legion of books, and a tiny five-pound cat with a giant personality. Member HWA, SFWA, SCBWI; and SDCC Creative Professional.

WHERE TO GET IT: Pitch Dark releases February 20! To find it, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and television series unspoiled. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015. He is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors and is usually busy trying to fulfill his lifelong goal to pet every dog in the world. His YA Contemporary debut, Anger is a Gift, is out May 22, 2018 with Tor Teen.