Researching and Writing Historical Fiction with Gloria Amescua and Alda P. Dobbs



Interview by Romy Natalia Goldberg

This past fall brought the publication of two fascinating books set during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), BAREFOOT DREAMS OF PETRA LUNA, a historical middle grade novel by Alda P. Dobbs (Sourcebooks Young Readers, September, 2021) and CHILD OF THE FLOWER-SONG PEOPLE: LUZ JIMÉNEZ, DAUGHTER OF THE NAHUA, a picture book biography written by Gloria Amescua and illustrated by award winning illustrator, Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams Books for Young Readers, August, 2021). Both Texas-based authors took the time out of their busy debut schedules to talk to us about their processes for researching and writing children’s books based on historic events and real people. 

Romy Natalia Goldberg: Both your main characters, Petra and Luz, learn of their indigenous ancestor’s beliefs through their grandparents, who, in turn, learned from their own grandparents. Can you talk a little about researching beliefs and traditions, especially those that were predominantly passed down orally?

Alda P. Dobbs: First, I’d like to thank you, Natalia, for interviewing me. It’s an honor! A lot of the beliefs and traditions in the story were handed down orally by elders in my family. Others, I had to research. I found myself reading many books on curanderismo and stories that were recorded by Spanish priests who interviewed indigenous people during colonial times. Everything was so fascinating it was hard to choose what to include in the book while not bogging down the story.

Gloria Amescua: Thankfully, one of the important contributions Luz Jiménez made was to listen to and remember the mythologies and other stories that were passed down orally. The book Life and Death in Milpa Alta: A Nahuatl Chronicle of Diaz and Zapata (translated and edited by Fernando Horcasitas, from the Nahuatl Recollections of Doña Luz Jiménez) was one of my most important resources. Luz told Horcasitas what is in this book over time in Nahuatl. It included not only her childhood and things that she and the Nahua people of Milpa Alta experienced, their traditions and daily life, but also the stories that had been passed down orally. Horcasitas wrote it down phonetically. Milpa Alta hosted the First Aztec Congress, which mainly determined what written Nahuatl should look like in 1940.

What advice can you give for researching historical events? Anything you wish you’d known at the start of this process? 

Alda P. Dobbs: This is a great one! I wished I hadn’t been so shy and had asked librarians for help. I spent a lot of time trying to do the research on my own, which wasn’t bad, but I probably reinvented the wheel a couple of times. Having a physics and engineering background, I approached historical research as I would science, and I’ve learned that there’s a better and more efficient way. I would have saved myself time and frustration had I approached a librarian sooner.

Gloria Amescua: I wish I’d been more organized about gathering my information. My main advice is to make sure you get your sources down for everything. You may or may not use what you have read or taken notes on, but be sure to document everything. I keep meaning to learn about one of the several online organizers, but I haven’t yet. My advice is do better than I did. It will keep you from going back to find sources.


Sanborn Map Company. San Antonio 1911 Vol 1, map, 1911; New York. ( accessed October 15, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.


Alda, I’ve heard you mention the importance of maps in your research before. Can you talk a little more about your source for maps and how they figured into your writing process? 

Maps were essential in my research. I used Sanborn maps, which are old insurance maps made in the 19th and 20th centuries that detail the types of buildings, their structure and use. I crossed referenced these maps with modern Google “street view” maps that allow me to see where the building once stood, or if I’m lucky enough, I could still see the same old building standing. I also used vintage photographs that allowed me to dig deeper into the research and find out where the photograph was taken. All these resources allow me to recreate a map that shows where my character lives, works, goes to school, shops, etc. I used Sanborn maps to recreate an old map of San Antonio, Texas that took up my entire office wall but gave me a sense of my character’s life there in 1913. 

What is your system for keeping information organized, easy to access, and backed up? 

Alda P. Dobbs: For my research, I kept both electronic files and physical divider tabs that were labeled with the following titles: photographs, maps, newspaper articles, academic papers, books, and of course, miscellaneous. I also kept a journal where I’d write everything down from research notes, to notes I’d take when speaking to librarians or historians. In my journal, I also jotted down ideas for scenes or dialogue or just plain brainstorming. I always backed up all my electronic files using a SSD hard drive.

Gloria Amescua: I wish I had a great system to tell you about. What I did was to create computer files that made sense to me. For instance, I have folders for my revisions by year. Other folders are for the language Nahuatl and images in which Luz appears with lists of all the artwork information and links. I copied articles from the internet as well as their links. Early on, I learned the hard way, since I had a certain link I had a difficult time finding again to an exposition featuring Luz in Mexico City. I used colored flags in my books.


Alda shared a series of photos that inspired and informed PETRA LUNA on her social media platforms


The internet has made research infinitely easier, but examining physical documents and visiting locations firsthand is still a part of the research process. I’m curious which parts of your research happened online and which was more useful or necessary “in real life.”

Alda P. Dobbs: I’d say both online research and “in-person” visits were essential for me. Almost every setting in my book took place in a location I had visited before, so I knew the way the terrain looked, the way it smelled and sounded. The old photographs, which many of them I found online, were essential in adding details to settings or constructing characters. 

Gloria Amescua: I didn’t get to visit any places in my book in real life. I would love to visit Milpa Alta and go back to Mexico City to see the murals I saw long ago that included Luz before I knew about her. Of course, without finding a pamphlet at the University of Texas in Austin that was about Luz Jiménez, I wouldn’t have known about her amazing life. The internet was definitely important because I found articles and images for Luz. I also wouldn’t have found my real resources, the books I used, including the one with Luz’s actual words. Through the internet, I also found Dr. Kelly McDonough, Professor of Native American and Indigenous studies at UT, who shared resources. She also introduced me to Luz’s grandson, Jesús Villanueva. Although we have yet to meet in person, Jesús and I corresponded through email. He was invaluable to me as he answered questions and shared booklets he was involved with writing about his grandmother and was part of my book launch!


Jesús Villanueva, grandson of Luz Jiménez, participating in Gloria Amescua’s virtual book launch via The Writing Barn


Gloria, Writing about real people, especially when there are living relatives involved, seems like an intimidating part of the biography process. Can you tell us a little about what it was like to approach and work with Luz’s grandson?  

Gloria Amescua: It was somewhat intimidating at first since it was my first book. I told him my qualifications as a poet, teacher, and studies in children’s literature, so he would know I was serious. Dr. Kelly McDonough, who volunteered to introduce us, is Jesús’ friend. They have worked together on projects, and I’m thankful for that gift of an introduction. Jesús Villanueva was as gracious as he could be and shared resources with me. He has few recollections of his grandmother since she passed away when he was very young, so his dedication has been to learn as much as he could. He has promoted her legacy through writing and presentations. He shared these with me. If I were to do it again, I would have kept in touch with him more frequently about the progress or lack of progress in the publishing journey since it took almost eight years.

Is there any one instance when you thought “Thank goodness for the internet!” or “Thank goodness I saw this in person!”? How did that experience improve your story and writing process?

Alda P. Dobbs: Yes, to both! My husband often traveled for work, and it was during the times when my kids napped or slept at night when I found myself doing most of my online searches. I’m also grateful to have met Mr. Tim Blevins, a librarian at the Pikes Peak Library system. He’s the one who introduced me to many wonderful research tools just when I was about to give up!   

Gloria Amescua: I’m sure it would have been next to impossible for me to write this story without the internet. I was able to find many of the images of Luz in art that I included in the text as part of what Luz learned as a child, weaving, twisting yarn with her toes, grinding corn, etc. It helped me weave details in the story early on that are echoed in the images of her as a model for artists as an adult. I love that it comes full circle.


Double spread illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh for CHILD OF THE FLOWER-SONG PEOPLE: LUZ JIMÉNEZ, DAUGHTER OF THE NAHUA


The Mexican Revolution brings chaos and fear to the lives of your main characters. Featuring trauma in a children’s book is a delicate matter, made even more challenging when you’re dealing with real events. How did you choose to address the topic and why? What do you hope readers will take away from seeing Petra and Luz navigate the challenges they face? 

Alda P. Dobbs: I chose to write about the Mexican Revolution because it’s a topic that’s close to me and it’s also one I’d never seen presented in children’s literature. The conflict itself is very complicated and in it, women and children played many different roles. It was a difficult subject to write about for young readers but thankfully, there are many brilliant, wonderful books who tackle trauma masterfully, like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and Avi’s Crispin, to name a few. 

Gloria Amescua: The Mexican Revolution changed Luz Jiménez’s life drastically. Her father and the other men were killed, their village destroyed, her education ended so that Luz and her remaining family had to find a way to survive in a new environment. I had to tell about it and not dwell on the hardships but move on quickly to how Luz overcame her struggles, how she found a new way of being herself, proud of being Nahua. The revolution created a powerful change in artists and how they wanted to honor the indigenous people and make art available to everyone in murals as well as paintings, photographs, statues. I hope readers will see how Luz’s strength was believing in herself despite the hardships she had to overcome. She realized her dream of being a teacher in a way she never expected. 

What books served as mentor texts for you? Along the same line, are there any authors or illustrators whose methods you found inspiring? 

Alda P. Dobbs: I named a couple of books in the previous answer, but other books that helped with structure, pacing, and dialogue were Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games book series and Kate Dicamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie

Gloria Amescua: I read many, many picture book biographies. I examined every aspect of each of them. A few include Bethany Hegedus and Arun Ghandhi’s Grandfather Ghandi and Be the Change, Melissa Sweet’s Balloons Over Broadway, Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate is Never Equal and Monica Brown’s Pablo Neruda and Waiting for the Biblioburro. I returned to these over and over as well as many others. They inspired me as I worked on mine, as I worked on structure, language, organization, etc. I especially loved the illustrations and the emotions expressed in the Ghandi books, the Mixtec style in Separate is Never Equal, and Pablo Neruda, where the illustrations include a river of words in trees, leaves, everywhere in English and Spanish. I wanted my book to be as beautiful and important as these books. 

Can you talk a little about what learning to read and write symbolizes to your characters, and by extension, what writing and sharing their stories means to you?

Gloria Amescua: Luz wanted to learn to read and teach future generations of “professors, priests, lawyers.” It was a way she could not only improve her life but also that of others. I am honored to share Luz Jiménez’s story because she brought to light the intelligence, beauty, and strength of the Nahua. I admire her resilience and pride in her culture. My writing this book means now many more people will know her and her contributions, her legacy. I hope it will lead readers to learn about other indigenous people as well.   

Alda P. Dobbs: Wow, what a great question! During the decade of the Mexican Revolution, in the 1910’s, only 20% of the Mexican population could read and write. My ancestors were part of the 80% who were illiterate. My grandmother, however, was determined to learn to read and write, and despite never having stepped inside a school, she taught herself how to read and write by the time she was twelve. I wanted to create a character with the same courage and determination my grandmother displayed throughout her life.



Gloria Amescua (Ah MES qua) has been a writer since she was a child, writing poems and stories throughout her life. She loves books that reach a young person’s heart, head, or funny bone and strives to do just that in her writing. She is an educator, poet, and children’s book writer. Abrams Books for Young Readers published her picture book biography in verse, Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua, August 17, 2021. Duncan Tonatiuh is the illustrator. An earlier version won the 2016 Lee and Low New Voices Honor Award. A variety of literary journals and anthologies have published Gloria’s poetry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published one of her poems in their national textbook literature series.  Gloria received both her B. A. and M. Ed. degrees from the University of Texas at Austin.  The grandmother of two amazing granddaughters, Gloria believes in children, pets, and possibilities.


Alda P. Dobbs is the author of the novel Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna. She was born in a small town in northern Mexico but moved to San Antonio, Texas as a child. Alda studied physics and worked as an engineer before pursuing her love of storytelling. She’s as passionate about connecting children to their past, their communities, different cultures and nature as she is about writing. Alda lives with her husband and two children outside Houston, Texas.





Image of Romy Natalia Goldberg

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.

Book Review: Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore


Review by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Summer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg, France.  Women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia Blau and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves. 

Five centuries late:  A pair of red shoes seals to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes.

MY TWO CENTS: As with any Anna-Marie McLemore book, Dark and Deepest Red is like watching a particularly colorful sunrise breach over a murky, ominous landscape. It’s illuminating, warming, but also bears with it a hint of darkness that makes the sunlight that much sweeter. Their distinctive prose, full of lush and elegant language, is immediately recognizable as is their attention to telling the stories of people history would try to forget. Dark and Deepest Red takes that task to a new level, pairing the historical narrative of Lala and Alifair in Strasbourg in 1518 with that of Rosella and Emil in a contemporary world. Their stories parallel, sharing common themes and motifs.

The Strasbourg narrative retells the dancing plague, in which roughly 400 people were struck by a shared affliction: dancing incessantly, sometimes to death. McLemore frames this historical moment as not just a time to examine socio-religious and early medicinal practices, but as a backdrop for xenophobic concerns about the Romani peoples. Lala, also called Lavinia to avoid being coded as Romani, flees her homeland to avoid persecution, but anti-Romani laws follow her. With the onset of the dancing plague also comes speculation that Lala or her aunt are the culprits. Her assumed involvement is further compounded by her relationship with the transgender Alifair. Lala is the focus character for the chapters recounting Strasbourg in 1518, making her a key character alongside Rosella and Emil.

Meanwhile, Rosella and Emil alternate chapters. Rosella’s told in the first person and Emil’s in the third. That we only get into Rosella’s mind is important, as she is afflicted with a similar plague: when she resews a pair of shoes originally made by her treasured grandparents and tries them on, she quickly learns that she cannot remove the shoes, and, to make matters worse, the shoes force Rosella to dance and, indeed, act independently of her body, often putting her in danger. The shoes also lead Rosella into Emil’s arms. Emil, who has rejected his own Romani heritage, must tap into his roots to help save Rosella.

The alternating chapters are a dance in and of themselves, leaping from Rosella to Strasbourg to Emil back to Strasbourg and resuming the sequence. This alternation, however, does possibly overemphasize the Strasbourg chapters, potentially at the risk of subordinating Rosella and Emil’s stories. When reading, I did find myself more invested in Lala and Alifair, rather than Rosella and Emil. (And, to be fair, this may just be a personal preference, but I do wonder if this is tied to the narrative structure, or my own personal interest in dance and the dancing plague…) While each story is deeply intertwined and McLemore does an artful job of drawing them together, the dual narratives may appear too divergent, at least initially. To be clear, they do come together. And they do so in the intricate, special, and supernatural ways typical of McLemore’s work.

Importantly, as well, for an audience invested in Latinx children’s literature, this text does not centralize Latinidad or problematize it. It’s incidental but nevertheless present. I find this so significant. Rosella’s ethnicity and racialized body are certainly something that inform the plot, but she is not the one who largely experiences xenophobia, Lala does. Regardless, Latinx readers will find mirrors in Lala’s experiences. That McLemore poses this shift in representation offers a wider appeal to this text. Rather than being seen as a “Latinx text,” or a “Romani text,” or a “queer text,” it’s all three. At these intersections we find a lovely, challenging, and poignant read.

TEACHING TIPS: The historical narrative of this text would lend it well to a paired text with a lesson on history. It may also be an interesting discussion tool to aid in explorations of the treatment of queer peoples in history. 

It would also pair well with discussions of Andersen’s “The Red Shoes,” as McLemore notes thus tale as a major influence on their writing of the novel. Students may read both and write about the similar themes. Students may also consider other Andersenesque stories and write their own retelling wise diverse casts. 


Anna-Marie McLemoreABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore (they/them) is the queer, Latinx, non-binary author of THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a 2016 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature; WILD BEAUTY, a Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Booklist Best Book of 2017; BLANCA & ROJA, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; DARK AND DEEPEST RED, a Winter 2020 Indie Next List title; and THE MIRROR SEASON, forthcoming in 2021. 




ABOUT THE REVIEWERCris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.

Book Review: Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez


DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: “This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Smith and Wash Fullerton know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But there are some forces even the most determined color lines cannot resist. And sometimes all it takes is an explosion.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.


Cindy L. Rodriguez: As soon as I finished Ashley’s novel, I wanted to reread it as a writer. I want to pull it apart and study it because it’s that good. One of the things I appreciate most was the slow burn of the narrative. The novel opens with the explosion, and then flashes back to show how the characters’ live intersect before the event. The fuse lit in that opening scene coils through the narrative, gaining in intensity as the story leads back to the explosion and then its aftermath. The tension in Naomi’s home, school, and community is palpable throughout the story and increases slowly as we’re led into the heartbreaking climax.

Ashley masterfully balances the big picture and the smallest details. Her writing made me think of a photographer who could both go wide and capture a panoramic view and then zoom in for a close up and not lose anything in this process. She also beautifully balances the swoony magic of falling deeply in love for the first time and the absolutely brutal realities faced by African-Americans and Mexicans at this time in history. BRAVA!!

Lila Quintero Weaver: Ashley’s command of narrative is impressive! In Out of Darkness, she tells a story set in the American past and makes it feel of the moment. It holds all the markers of a historical novel, starting with the cataclysmic explosion of 1937 that looms with ominous eventuality over the characters we come to care about. Threaded with lively detail, the historical richness comes through in social customs, daily activities, and the speech patterns and cultural attitudes typical of 1930s east Texas. No easy feat. I detect a massive amount of research behind it all.

This devotion to authenticity translates into contemporary meaning through the story’s characters and the complicated problems they face. Naomi’s most serious problem is a predatory stepfather whose capacity for evil keeps her in a constant state of vigilance. There is no escape. She has no money or resources and she feels deep loyalty toward her two tender stepsiblings. Because Naomi is Mexican-American and lives in a part of Texas where Mexicans aren’t numerous, she has no community to fall back on and is looked upon by some white classmates as dirty and worthless. When she falls hard for Wash, a young black man who offers her a chance at true happiness, Naomi steps into the arena of forbidden love—one she must keep hidden from society and the stepfather who follows her every move with lecherous eyes. What a story!

Others agree with us, too! Out of Darkness received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews. Here are some quotes and links with more information about and praise for the novel:

“The beauty of Perez’s prose and her surefooted navigation through the dangerous landscape of the East Texas oil field in the late 1930s redeem the fact that anyone who dares read this agonizing star-crossed love story will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces. Absolutely stunning.” —Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity and Michael L. Printz Award Honoree

Teen Library Toolbox (an SLJ blog):

Detailed review from The Midnight Garden (YA for adults):

Q&A on NBC

Diversity in YA post:

Q&A on our site earlier this week

And this post by Forever Young Adult nails the “casting call” for novel if it were made into a movie. Their picks of Christian Serratos as Naomi and Titus Makin Jr. as Wash were spot on! Nicely done, Forever Young Adult!


TEACHING TIPS: Although the New London, Texas, school explosion was the worst school disaster in our nation’s history, it’s one many (most) students have probably never learned about but should, as it has interesting implications concerning race and class worth exploring. Out of Darkness asks readers to think beyond the black and white dynamics of U.S. race issues by adding Latin@ children to the segregated schools system and portraying the daily concerns and realities of Mexicans who could or could not “pass” as white. Also, the violent consequences of marginalized romantic relationships isn’t often explored in curricula, but might be/should be considering the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. A book like Out of Darkness could help teen readers appreciate the long history of struggle and violence experienced by people who have wanted to live and love freely.

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsABOUT THE AUTHORAshley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015). A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and enjoys teaching everything from Spanish language and Latin American literature to the occasional course on vampires in literature. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Out of Darkness, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.


Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez about OUT OF DARKNESS

A Star is Born

We’re so thrilled to begin our third year online with a celebration of Out of Darkness by our amiga and co-blogger, Ashley Hope Pérez! Her third novel, which released September 1, is historical fiction, with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. Using multiple points of view, Ashley develops a cast of complex characters who confront brutal racism and violence in addition to the beauty of first love. Amanda MacGregor of Teen Librarian Toolbox said, “Pérez’s story is nothing short of brilliant”, and we wholeheartedly agree! In fact, we think it’s one of the best 2015 releases! If it’s not on your to be read list, it should be. Click here to read Ashley’s post about her work on this novel, and for more insight, see our Q&A with her below.

Ashley, in the last two years, you finished your doctoral dissertation, changed jobs and geographical locations, and gave birth to a second child. How did you manage to write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life?

When you put it like that, it does sound pretty outrageous! The short answer is that, when our first son was one, we moved to Paris for a year. I taught a ton of university English classes, ate yards and yards of bread, and worked on the first draft of the novel. I gave myself that year off from academic research. When we got back, I used the novel as a daily carrot to motivate my academic writing: if I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.

You don’t shy away from controversial territory! This story contains sexual abuse, incest, brutal racism and frank sexuality. Talk about shaping these elements within the boundaries of young-adult fiction.

Wait–there are boundaries to young adult fiction? No one told me!! Really, though, I shouldn’t be glib. It’s just that Andrew Karre (my editor for Out of Darkness as well as for The Knife and the Butterfly and What Can’t Wait) has always seemed more interested in pushing or crossing boundaries than in upholding them. He’s probably one of very few YA editors who sends emails that say things like, “could the sexual details in this scene be a little more explicit, not so coy?” Speaking more broadly, I’ve found it useful to give myself permission to cross even my own boundaries if I felt like doing so would help me get a scene closer to where I wanted it to be. As Andrew puts it, it’s easier to go too far and then scale things back than to strike the right note by trying to tiptoe forward.

You can tell that the frank depictions of consensual sexual activity is where I feel myself most challenged, but the racism and abuse that are part of the story in Out of Darkness are probably what’s harder for readers to contend with. The reality of racism in the world of 1937 East Texas didn’t seem like something I could—or should—varnish in any way. And sexual predation, now as in the past, flourishes in response to the social and economic vulnerability of potential victims. My main character, Naomi, is extremely vulnerable in both of these areas because of her ethnicity and precarious situation in the household where she lives. Being beautiful only puts her at greater risk.

WHITESonlyWhat went into your decision to use multiple points of view?

I was thinking about angles on the story and contrasts from the time I began feeling my way into the historical material for Out of Darkness. Part of what attracted me to the story was my curiosity—almost entirely unsatisfied by historical sources—about how the African American community experienced the explosion of the (white) New London school. The tensions and interplay between characters’ visions of the world seemed integral to the telling of this particular story. This was especially true since I wanted to recenter the narrative on experiences and perspectives that have been, at best, marginal in mainstream history.

I think readers needed to see the world through a range of characters’ eyes in Out of Darkness to grasp how dramatically different our experiences can be even when we are living in the same community. This understanding is not just a source of interest vis-à-vis the past; it can help contemporary readers reckon with the reality of inequity now. For example, it makes possible reflection on dramatic contrasts in schooling experiences or interactions with police for people of different backgrounds.

The racial complexity in this story is fascinating. As a brown-skinned person, Naomi falls between racial identities and finds doors closing in both the white and black communities. Was New London a mostly white settlement in that era? Did your research turn up instances of Mexicans caught between, as Naomi was?

 Prior to the East Texas oil boom, New London was a small agrarian community with  deeply segregated black and white communities. The discovery of oil meant the influx of many outsiders, both those who were working in oil and those who were simply attracted to the possibilities of a more prosperous community. Even though African Americans were mostly excluded from oilfield work (digging ditches was an exception), newcomers also arrived in search of jobs as chauffeurs, maids, busboys, line cooks, and craftsmen. I could not confirm the presence of a Mexican American like Naomi. Although I strongly suspect that a little girl named Juanita Herron was Hispanic, it’s impossible to know for sure. Still, I was satisfied that it was at least plausible for light-skinned children like the twins to slip into the school in much the way that families in Texas with American Indian backgrounds did. For example, the Drinkwater family in New London probably had Cherokee heritage, and their children attended the white school.


What was it about this particular event in history that made you want to dive in and create this narrative?

The New London explosion happened close to home (about 20 minutes from where I grew up), but I knew almost nothing about it and only rarely heard it mentioned. When I started, I didn’t know where the explosion would be in the timeline of the novel, but I knew that I wanted to incorporate it. The more I explored, the clearer it seemed to me that my way “into” the story would be different from the approach taken by historians, although historical detail is of course very important to the world of Out of Darkness. I wanted to think about what the explosion meant for the victims and their families, but I was even more interested in following its repercussions outward.

What becomes possible in a community that has been shattered in this way? What forms of brokenness in the community beforehand might have been overshadowed by the deaths of almost 300 children? For example, I wanted to explore the quieter, but no less terrible, effects of segregation. After all, black children were spared from the explosion precisely because they had been excluded from the opportunities at the white New London school, which was billed in newspapers as “the richest rural school in the country.”

And, as is usually the case, I began imagining particular characters. In the case of Out of Darkness, Wash and Naomi came first, then the twins, then their stepfather Henry. Once I had Wash and Naomi, I had to find a space for them to be together (a special tree in the woods), and that’s how the Sabine River and the East Texas landscape became important to the story. I loved writing about the natural spaces of my childhood. Sometimes describing that physical beauty was a bit of a reprieve from the harshness of my characters’ circumstances. And I think I even managed to fall a bit in love with Wash myself.


2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsAshley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015). A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and enjoys teaching everything from Spanish language and Latin American literature to the occasional course on vampires in literature. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.