By Dora M. Guzmán
A: Thank you, Dora! And thank you for the opportunity to visit Latinxs in Kidlit once again! I like it here!
The Pura Belpré call… the first thing I thought was this can’t be true, but I had heard “Pura Belpré Committee” so it was true! I couldn’t stop crying, but as the call ended, I started wondering what exactly I had won. It was all a blur. I didn’t want to call back the Committee, so the next morning I watched the livecast to find out.
Q: You’ve illustrated numerous books. What inspired you to write a children’s picture book?
A: While I started illustrating books, it felt like a natural progression to next move to a children’s book as an author-illustrator. Alma was the perfect story to take that step since I knew the story well since it has auto-biographical elements and is based on members of my extended family. Initially, Alma was the story of how I got my name and then the story grew from there.
Making Alma felt bumpy quite a few times, and Stefanie, my agent at Full Circle Literary, always knew how to help me get the story to the next level little by little. It was an exciting time when she was ready to go on submission with both the text and sample artwork. Once the book sold, Mary Lee, my editor at Candlewick, was exactly who I needed to finish making this book. Stefanie continued helping during this stage. She helps me all the time! She is my right arm, leg, and eye.
Q: What are the top three tips you’d give future writers looking to write their first picture book?
A: I’m still so new to children’s books that I’m still figuring things out myself! I’ll give myself three tips, and hopefully someone will find them useful.
- Write what you know. Alma is exactly that.
- It’s never too late to start something new.
- Breathe and keep going.
Q: In your author’s message and blog, you describe Alma and How She Got Her Name as an autobiographical story. Who has left the biggest imprint in your life? How so?
A: This is a hard question to answer. So many people have shaped who I am today, but I will say my parents.
My dad taught me to love Peru and our rich culture, to appreciate art and books, and to enjoy discovering new places. My mom showed me that with determination and drive you can accomplish anything. She believes that no task is too simple or too small. They are all worth doing. She also made me fall in love with words. In the summer, when I was young, if I came to her with the typical “Mooooom, I’m booooreeed!”, she would send me to learn five words from the dictionary. I don’t think I ever passed the letter A, but I learned to appreciate words.
Q: As a child, what book resonated with you the most?
A: Easy answer: El Principito (The Little Prince). I received a copy for my 10th birthday from a friend who lived two houses down. The book changed the way I looked at books. This book spoke directly to me, and made me look at the world in a way I didn’t think was possible.
Q: What is one message you’d give to all the readers of Alma?
A: Learn your story; be proud of where you come from. Celebrate who you are!
I am very proud Alma will release in simultaneous English and Spanish editions, and that I was able to write and now share the book in my two languages. Spanish is my native language since I was born in Peru and moved to the U.S. when I was 24 years old. Like many bilingual children in the U.S., today I use both English and Spanish daily.
Stefanie was sharing with me that one in four children in the U.S. have at least one parent who was born in another country. That’s an enormous part of the population! Those children should be proud of where their families come from and of speaking many languages. It will be a joy to be able to share Alma with children in both of my languages, Alma and How She Got Her Name and Alma y cómo obtuvo su nombre.
Q: Do you plan to write more children’s books? Any projects in the works that you can tell us about?
A: I’m happy to say yes! I have another author-illustrator book coming from Candlewick. I am also illustrating more picture books including Babymoon written by Hayley Barrett (Candlewick 2019) and Swashby and the Sea written by Beth Ferry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2020).
¿Cuál es la historia de tu nombre?
¿Qué historia quisieras contar?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR: Juana Martinez Neal is an award-winning illustrator and artist. Her passion for art started as a child and led her to study at one of the best schools in fine arts in Peru. Her journey as an illustrator led her to the United States, where she continues to illustrate a variety of children’s books. For updates on her art, follow her on Instagram @juanamartinezn. You can also find her on Twitter: @juanamartinez, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/juanamartinezneal.illustrator/ and at her official website at http://juanamartinezneal.com/
There are also wonderfully illustrated name tags for kids near the bottom: http://juanamartinezneal.com/books/alma/
Dora M. Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches college courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is currently a doctoral student with a major in Reading and Language. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never ending “to read” pile!