Q&A with Alexandra Alessandri about her new book Isabel and Her Colores Go to School, illus. by Courtney Dawson

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Today, we are chatting with author Alexandra Alessandri about her second picture book, Isabel and Her Colores Go to School, which is illustrated by Courtney Dawson.

The book just released yesterday! HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY!

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First, here is the publisher’s description of the book:

English, with its blustery blues and whites, just feels wrong to Isabel. She prefers the warm oranges and pinks of Spanish. As she prepares for class at a new school, she knows she’s going to have to learn–and she would rather not! Her first day is uncomfortable, until she discovers there’s more than one way to communicate with friends. This is a universal story about feeling new and making new friends.

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Now, here’s some information on the creators:

Alexandra Peñaloza Alessandri is a Colombian American poet, children’s author, and Associate Professor of English at Broward College. She received her BA and MA degrees in English from Florida International University, as well as a Certificate of Fiction from UCLA Extension. Her poetry has appeared in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, YARN, and Atlanta Review, where her poem “Inheritance” was a Finalist in the 2017 International Poetry Competition. She is the author of Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! (Albert Whitman, Oct. 2020) and Isabel and Her Colores Go to School (Sleeping Bear Press, Fall 2021).

Alexandra is represented by Deborah Warren of East West Literary Agency. When not writing or teaching, Alexandra spends her time daydreaming, relearning the piano, and planning the next great adventure with her family. She lives in Florida with her husband, son, and hairless pup, dreaming of Colombia.

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Courtney Dawson - Photo by Anthony Dekleine

Courtney Dawson is a children’s book illustrator of many titles including A Vote is a Powerful Thing (Albert Whitman) and The Stars Beckoned (Philomel). She is inspired by the world around her and all of the good in it. Courtney loves to work on projects that are empowering, inclusive, and whimsical. She also loves rainy days and painting to Sam Cooke in her California studio.

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Now, here’s our Q&A with Alexandra:


1. What was your inspiration for this story?

Isabel and Her Colores Go to School was inspired by my own experience of starting kindergarten in New York. We only spoke Spanish at home, and when I started school, I spoke almost no English. My story was a little different—I literally got lost in the hallways of my school because I misunderstood the teacher—but I wanted to channel those feelings into Isabel’s story.

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2. In the story, your character struggles with the first day of school and not knowing the language. What made you decide to incorporate colors, too? (I couldn’t help but think of the song De Colores while reading it.)

I hadn’t listened to “De Colores” since I was a kid! Thank you for this trip down memory lane.

Though I’m not an artist, I love color—the bolder and brighter the better—and I’m also fascinated by the different names for different shades (I love reading the names on paint chips!) When I started brainstorming for Isabel, I didn’t know I would incorporate color this way, but I knew Isabel was an artist, so I started asking myself, What would the different languages sound like to her? What would she associate them with? For her, Spanish would remind her of home, with the green of her mountains, pinks, yellows, and purples of her mami’s flowers, the brilliant blues of nearby rivers. And, because English is foreign—and scary—for her, she would associate it with storms. As I wrote and revised, I worked at strengthening this connection in both a literal and figurative manner.

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3. The story has the Spanish translation right on the pages. Was that part of your original vision for this story, so that Spanish speakers could read and enjoy it, too?

I’ve always wanted to have my stories translated into Spanish, so my family and Spanish speakers could read and enjoy them. For Isabel, though, I wrote and submitted the story in English with Spanish sprinkled in, as it’s what’s most natural for me. It was my brilliant editor Sarah Rockett who suggested having the book as a both an English and Spanish edition. I celebrated! I didn’t realize just how much I yearned for this, and I’m incredibly excited to be able to share this story with English and Spanish speakers.

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4. The artwork on the pages is beautiful. Did you have any input in the art process?

Courtney’s art is just so gorgeous! I love how she got the essence of who Isabel and the other characters are and how she captured the play of colors in the artwork. When I first saw her sketches, I knew the story was in great hands. I did get to see the art in a few parts of the process, like the cover sketches and interior pages, and I was invited to give feedback, which I appreciated. But most of my feedback was just me gushing about the illustrations—Courtney’s art just blew me away!

See for yourself….

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Congratulations to Alexandra and Courtney! Isabel and Her Colores Go to School is now available wherever books are sold. You can quickly find it here at Indiebound or through her publisher, Sleeping Bear Press.

Book Review: My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders by René Colato Laínez, illus by Fabricio Vanden Broeck

 

Review by Sanjuana Rodriguez

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Young René’s mother has sent him a new pair of shoes from the United States. He loves his new shoes. “They walk everywhere I walk. They jump every time I jump. They run as fast as me. We always cross the finish line at the same time.”

René—with his new shoes—and his father set off on the long journey to meet his mother in the United States. He says goodbye to his friends in El Salvador, and “Uno, dos, tres, my shoes and I are ready to go.” The trip is difficult. They take buses and walk across El Salvador, into Guatemala and then into Mexico. His brand-new shoes lose their shine, turning dirty and gray. They become elephants, pushing against the wind; race cars, fleeing hungry dogs; swim shoes, escaping floods; and submarines, navigating through sticky mud. When holes appear on the soles of his shoes, his father won’t let him give up. “René, my strong boy, we want to be with Mamá.”

Sharing his own experiences, René Colato Laínez’s moving bilingual picture book brings to life the experiences of many young children who make the arduous journey from Central America to the United States in search of a better life.

MY TWO CENTS: This picture book was inspired by the author’s own journey as a child. This book is very similar to his book My Shoes and I (2010), but different in that it is a bilingual book and is the author’s journey as he crossed borders as a child. The English text in this book has been modified, and the Spanish version has been added. The text is simpler and intended for young readers. The book begins when, for Christmas, René receives a pair of shoes from his mother, who lives in the U.S. The book details the journey that René and his father take by focusing on what the shoes go through in traveling across three countries.

The book does not overtly describe the dangers in crossing borders, but there are some instances where hardships are described. One example of this is when René describes having to live in a dark trailer because his father loses his wallet in Mexico City. Another example is when they are crossing the Mexico/U.S. border and René states that the water comes up to this stomach and then to his shoulders. René and his father travel through El Salvador, Mexico, and finally cross the border into the U.S. where his mother is waiting.

The focus on the shoes throughout the book allows the author to tell about the journey, but not go into the arduous, dangerous details. The resiliency of the young boy is shown throughout the book as he continues his journey to be with his mother. In one case, Papá encourages him, “René, my strong boy, we want to be with Mamá. We won’t give up” (n.p.).

This book would be a great addition to a classroom unit about immigration. It specifically focuses on the border crossings and the long journey that families embark on to search for a new life. The book also addresses the desire that families have to be together and the dangers that families endure in search of a better life. The reprint of this book is timely as immigration, border crossings, and the journeys that children embark on continue to be scarce in children’s literature.

The author’s note at the end of the book tells the reader that this story is actually based on his life. René Colato Laínez shares some of the details that inspired him to write the book, such as the fact that this mother sent him a pair of shoes for his journey. The author also shares that, along with his father, they had to leave El Salvador due to the civil war in that country. At the end, René shares that he wrote this book to “tell readers about the hard journey that immigrant children and families face. They are escaping from violence and crime. Their journey is not a choice but a necessity to look for a better place, where they can accomplish their dreams”

INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR: I reached out to the author via social media to see if he would answer some questions about the book. Here are René’s responses to my questions:

This book is very similar to your wonderful book My Shoes and I. How is this one different?

René: My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders/ Mis zapatos y yo: Cruzando tres fronteras is a new edition of My Shoes and I. For this edition, the English text has been modified to have a bilingual version. The original text was longer, and, in order to have the English and the Spanish text on the same page, I did some edits. In My Shoes and I, the name of the boy is Mario. In this bilingual edition, I could use my name. The name of the protagonist is René.

Why is it important for you to tell your story?

René: Many children cross borders around the world everyday. They are escaping war, crime, or violence. It is hard to leave a country and your loved ones. As an author who had to cross borders, I want to give voice to the voiceless. I also want to tell readers that their journey is not a choice, but a necessity.

Many teachers shy away from having discussions focused on what are perceived as “difficult” topics. Why is it important for teachers to discuss issues such as immigration in the classroom?

René: In the news, children watch about numbers and politics, but they also need to know about real experiences. I think that children’s books are great for children to see what is beyond their windows and horizons. By telling children about immigration and other hard topics, we can build empathy in our children.

Please share anything else that you would like others to know about your new book?

René: I am so happy that this book is back in print and now it is bilingual. I hope that this book can touch the hearts of many readers.

RESOURCES: 

Teachers can visit the website below for information about the book

https://myshoesandi.weebly.com

PictureABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website): I am René Colato Laínez, the Salvadoran award winning author of many bilingual/ multicultural children’s books. I have  a master’s degree from  Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for  Children & Young  Adults.

My goal as a writer is to produce good multicultural children’s literature; stories where minority children are portrayed in a positive way, where they can see themselves as heroes, and where they can dream and have hopes for the future. I want to write authentic stories of Latin American children living in the United States. Do you want to know more about me? Please read my long biography.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.