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 Birthday: What the Wind Can Tell You

 


Happy book birthday to What the Wind Can Tell You

(May 15, Islandport Press)

About the book:

In this new middle grade novel by Sarah Marie Aliberti Jette, seventh-grader Isabelle Perez is fascinated by wind. And this year, she’s determined to win the middle school science fair with her wind machine. She’s just as determined to have her brother, Julian, who has a severe form of epilepsy and uses a wheelchair, serve as her assistant. But after Julian has a grand seizure, everything changes.

Isabelle is suddenly granted entry into Las Brisas, a magical world where Julian’s physical limitations disappear, and one, she discovers, that he visits every night. The more Isabelle explores Las Brisas, the more possibilities she sees––for Julian, and for herself––and the more she finds herself at odds with her parents. Debut author Sara Marie A. Jette has told, with remarkable insight, humor, and a touch of magical realism, a powerful story of a family struggling to love without fear.

About the author:

Sarah Marie Jette grew up in Lewiston, Maine, and now lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, but her route from Maine to Massachusetts was anything but a straight line. She got her degree in English and Women’s Studies at Mount Holyoke College, then went halfway around the world to serve in the Peace Corps in Mongolia. She then studied rehabilitation counseling at Boston University’s Sargent College of Rehabilitation before turning to teaching. She now teaches fourth grade at Thompson Elementary School in Arlington, Mass. Somehow, between her students and her own three young children, she finds time to write. “Finding time to write is hard, but necessary,” she says.

  1. How does your heritage affect your writing? Why did you choose to make Isabelle and her family Mexican-American? 

A: When I wrote What the Wind Can Tell You, I made Isabelle Mexican-American because I wanted to write the character I searched for as a child. I spent my childhood searching for characters who looked like me in books. Fairy tale princesses were always ‘fair.’ The books I read described characters with blue eyes and freckles. Whenever I found a character with dark hair or brown eyes, I told myself that they were like me, though, deep inside, I knew that they weren’t. Representation matters—not token characters in the background, but complex and interesting characters from diverse backgrounds that you can fall in love with. I make an effort to fill my classroom library with diverse books. There are more than there used to be, but still not enough.

Q: What was the inspiration for What the Wind Can Tell You?

A: The inspiration for What the Wind Can Tell You was a single lightning bolt. It hit me as I drove home after visiting with friends. I had just held their newborn baby and spent time with the baby’s big brother. On my drive, I imagined the relationship these boys were going to have. I thought about the love between siblings and how special it is. I pulled my car over and wrote my idea down on a paper napkin.

The baby’s big brother has epilepsy, much like my character, Julian. He was diagnosed when he was a few months old. On Sunday mornings, for about two years, I babysat him. I held him, fed him, changed his diapers, soothed him through seizures, and read to him. Sometimes, therapists visited and I learned ways to help him strengthen his muscles or track objects with his eyes. His music therapists were my favorite.

I had been writing for years, but this was the first time I found a story that felt so right. I wrote furiously and completed the first draft in three months. It would be many more years of revising before my story was ready to submit to editors, but my inspiration carried me through.

Q: Do you have any writers or books you most admire and turn to for inspiration? 

A: I admire the writing of Michelle Cuevas. The language in her books is rich and beautiful. She deals with big issues—growing up, identity, and loss—but she is also very playful in her writing. I love reading her books out loud so I can see how my students react to her words. I am also a big fan of Jonathan Auxier. I read his book Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes to my students every year. His stories are unusual, engaging, and a lot of fun.

Best of luck to the brand-new What the Wind Can Tell You

Book Review: Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver

marcelo_coverFROM THE PUBLISHER:

The term “cognitive disorder” implies there is something wrong with the way I think or the way I perceive reality. I perceive reality just fine. Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others.

Marcelo Sandoval hears music that nobody else can hear — part of an autism-like condition that no doctor has been able to identify. But his father has never fully believed in the music or Marcelo’s differences, and he challenges Marcelo to work in the mailroom of his law firm for the summer . . . to join “the real world.”

There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm. He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it’s a picture he finds in a file — a picture of a girl with half a face — that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight.

Reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in the intensity and purity of its voice, this extraordinary novel is a love story, a legal drama, and a celebration of the music each of us hears inside.

MY TWO CENTS: Certain quirks cause 17-year-old Marcelo Sandoval to stand out from the crowd. He fastens his shirt all the way to the top button, even when he’s not wearing a necktie. His speech can be overly formal, and he often refers to himself in the third person. Don’t ask him to catch the meaning of an eye roll or a smirk because his brain isn’t wired to interpret subtler forms of nonverbal language. Plus, he hears music that no one else can hear. Marcelo was born with a cognitive disorder resembling Asperger syndrome, a category of autism spectrum disorder often considered “high-functioning.” The syndrome’s most recognizable traits are difficulty with social interactions and the tendency to become preoccupied with special areas of interest. In Marcelo’s case, this is the study of religion.

Marcelo attends Paterson, a school for kids with disabilities. The summer before his senior year, he’s supposed to work at the school’s stables, helping with the therapeutic ponies, but his father, a lawyer, has a different plan. Arturo Sandoval thinks it’s time for his son to experience “the real world,” in the form of a summer job at the law firm. If Marcelo manages the job satisfactorily, he’ll be allowed to choose which school to attend in the fall—the safe and friendly Paterson he knows well, or Oak Ridge High, a regular school not structured around the needs of students with disabilities.

What Marcelo encounters on the job is far more complex and morally ambiguous than the simple mailroom duties he’s hired to carry out. The law firm’s other partner has a college-age son, Wendell, who is also working at the office over the summer. Arturo considers Wendell a good role model for Marcelo. Little does he know that Wendell is much more interested in checking out the female employees than in getting any work done, and Jasmine, Marcelo’s supervisor, is the main object of his lust. At first, Marcelo tries to ingratiate himself to Wendell, who holds considerable power in assessing Marcelo’s performance, but it becomes apparent that Wendell is a jerk who mocks Marcelo, objectifies women, and disregards Arturo as a “minority hire.”

Other workplace quandaries pop up. Marcelo discovers a photograph of a girl badly injured in a car crash, due to the failure of a windshield manufactured by one of the law firm’s most important clients. He begins to wonder about his father’s decision to protect wealthy corporations, instead of those who’ve been harmed by the corporation’s negligence and can’t afford legal help.

But this YA novel isn’t a legal thriller per se. It’s a variation on the coming of age story, one that visits romantic love and sexual intimacy, and repeatedly explores the idea of what is real. There’s the real music that everyone can hear and the internal music heard only by Marcelo. There’s the real world of the law firm and Oak Ridge High School, and the protected world of Paterson. And how about the distinction between a happy smile and a sarcastic smile, or the literal words that people use and the actual meanings behind them? Plus, who is the real Arturo: the father that Marcelo knows, or the lawyer who may have wandered into less than noble choices? Reality is tough to decode.

I am not qualified to comment in depth on Stork’s depiction of Marcelo’s cognitive disorder. As I read, I kept myself alert for any signals that the author had romanticized the character’s condition or imbued him with magical or savant abilities, as is often the case in cultural portrayals of people with autism spectrum disorders. I saw nothing approaching those errors. Luckily, Disability in Kidlit, a blog devoted to reviewing books about characters with disabilities, has also published a review of Marcelo in the Real World. Read S.E. Smith’s fine analysis here.

Stork presents the Sandovals as a cohesive, but realistic Latino family, with flaws intact. They stand apart from the most prevalent depictions of Latino families in fiction and film, where poverty, domestic violence, and trouble with immigration issues crop up frequently. Marcelo’s mother, Aurora, is a registered nurse. She and Arturo are educated, upper-middle class professionals of Mexican heritage who can afford to send their son to a specialized private school. Their other child, Yolanda, is enrolled at an Ivy League university. Judging by their achievements, the Sandovals are living the American Dream, but crass remarks by Wendell convincingly show the darker side of reaching the Dream, that even successful Latinos are subject to derisive questions about their legitimacy.

Francisco Stork is a brilliant writer. His characters breathe, his dialogue sings, and his depiction of Marcelo’s interior life sparkles with beautiful insights and revelations. In writing his main character as a Latino with a developmental disorder, he gives readers the rare opportunity to experience two seldom combined, yet richly portrayed worlds. In Stork’s hands, this intersection of culture and cognitive challenge becomes suffused with poetic tenderness, and the result is an unforgettable novel.

francisco_storkFrancisco X. Stork was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and moved to the United States at age nine. He studied at Spring Hill College, Harvard University and Columbia University, where he completed a law degree. Stork’s five published novels have received awards, honors and high praise from reviewers. Keep up with publishing news and events at his official author site.

 

 

TEACHING RESOURCES:

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

Autism Society of America

The official site of the autistic professor, speaker and author Temple Grandin

Equine Therapy Programs

Navigating Love and Autism,” a profile in The New York Times

In this video clip, comedian DL Hughley shares a touching story about his adult son with Asperger syndrome.