The Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference Offers Great Panels & Intimate Setting

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

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Bestselling author Esmeralda Santiago

Once, I attended a large conference for educators, and when I approached the keynote speaker to ask a question, handlers surrounded her and ushered her away. I bring this up because the Comadres y Compadres Writers Conference was the opposite experience. The conference, held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn on September 27, was an intimate affair, meaning the well-known agents, editors, and authors were *right there* and accessible. Bestselling author Esmeralda Santiago posed for pictures. Meg Medina paused in the hallway to sign books. Conference-goers lunched at small tables with Stacy Whitman from Tu Books and Adriana Dominguez from Full Circle Literary. How cool, right?

The conference, in its third year, was developed by Dominguez, Marcela Landres, and Nora de Hoyos Comstock, the founder of Las Comadres para las Americas to “provide unpublished Latino writers with access to published Latino authors as well as agents and editors who have a proven track record of publishing Latino books.” The one-day event offered panels, one-on-one critiques, a pitch slam, and a lunch-time speech by keynote speaker Esmeralda Santiago, who told her own publishing story and emphasized the discipline needed to be a professional writer. Books of all the presenters were also available from La Casa Azul, a New York City bookstore that specializes in Latino Literature.

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Author Meg Medina

Here were some of the highlights:

Author Meg Medina, winner of the Pura Belpré Award for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, emphasized the importance of diversity in children’s literature. “We’re looking at a diverse set of kids in the (school) seats, so we need a diverse set of books.” She added that Latin@ books are not only for Latin@s: “Our books matter to all kids of all cultures.”

In terms of craft, Medina told writers to put their efforts into creating great work, not a great platform. The writing comes first. She also said she is not a methodical planner. Instead, she follows her character–she lets the characters speak to her–as she is writing and often asks, “What are you really afraid of? What’s really the problem?” When creating an antagonist, writers should “create a worthy opponent, a layered opponent. Don’t create a stereotype, especially for the bad guy.”

Medina spoke at a later panel with our own Lila Quintero Weaver, author of Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. During that session, moderated by Shelley Diaz, Senior Editor of School Library Journal’s reviews, Lila spoke about her non-traditional publishing route that led her to become an accidental author. Her graphic novel was originally a college project that eventually landed on the desk of the University of Alabama Press editors. Lila said she couldn’t think of a single disappointment in publishing so far and encouraged writers to see the process as an opportunity to grow, not just get published.

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Meg Medina, Lila Quintero Weaver, and Shelley Diaz

Here are Lila’s thoughts after the conference:

“One of the exceptional values of conferences like Comadres is what they offer over social media alone. You can share a table at lunch, laugh together, chat about life beyond writing, and listen to the same speaker in the same moment. It’s the magic of synergy, which in the case of Latin@s comes with extra simpatico in the sauce! I returned home with a pocketful of business cards, and my Twitter feed lit up with Latin@ conversations on multiple topics. Let’s not forget the opportunity to discover new writers. My Goodreads update will soon reflect that fact. I wasn’t seeking representation or editorial feedback, but those opportunities were present at the conference too, another BIG reason for attending. So yes, my experience boils down to making great connections with Latin@ writers, the kind that endure if you work on them.”

For those seeking representation and editorial feedback, we have good news. Agents and editors said they want more diverse titles, but they said they’ve seen too many memoirs and depressing stories cross their desks. They would, however, like to see more young adult manuscripts with Latin@ protagonists. Nancy Mercado, editorial director at Scholastic said she’d love a Latino Cheaper by the Dozen, and Johanna Castillo, vice president and senior editor at Atria/Simon & Schuster, said she’s hoping to see rich stories about immigrant children raised without their families in the U.S.

Organizers said attendance at this year’s conference doubled from last year, a great sign that the event will be around for years to come.

Click here for another report on the conference, and click here for more  information about Las Comadres.

Illustrator Joe Cepeda Talks to Latin@s in Kid Lit, Part 2

By Lila Quintero Weaver

We’re continuing a fascinating conversation with acclaimed illustrator Joe Cepeda. His work graces many Latin@-themed children’s books. Did you miss the first installment? Go here.

Lila: When did your interest in art begin? How did you train for a career in illustration?

Joe: When I was young, I enjoyed drawing enough that my mom enrolled me at the Los Angeles Music and Art School in East Los Angeles, a small jewel of a place where I first tried painting. By my teens, though, I stopped going and after graduating high school found myself headed to college to study engineering. It took me awhile before I changed all of that. Initially, I thought I’d be an editorial cartoonist, but as soon as I got a brush back in my hand, I realized I wanted to do something that had an artfulness to it as well. Illustration afforded the perfect combination of content and creative articulation for me.

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To be honest, my training was largely guided toward editorial work. I sort of fell into children’s books. Creating a piece for a magazine article is much like doing work for a cover. There is a certain amount of seduction employed in influencing a magazine reader to stop and read an article, much the way you’d want someone to pick up a book off a shelf. A combination of abstraction, mystery, emotion, and information might play a role in creating that single image that will lure the audience in.

From the books I’ve illustrated, I pretty much taught myself sequential image-making and continue to do that. With a portfolio largely lacking any real samples that reflected page-turning sensibilities, it was very fortunate that I was signed up to illustrate those first books. I believe that it was an inclination to write a picture as much as illustrate one that may have been evident to my first editors and art directors. They seem to have responded to that and took a risk. I’m grateful to them for doing so.

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Lila: Most of us have no idea how an illustrator goes about his work. Can you give us a tour of the process?

Joe: In many ways, the real work is done throughout the sketch phase. For editorial work, I usually create a few alternate ideas for a director to choose from. The sketches need to be tight enough for the director to envision the finished art.

For books, the sketch process is more comprehensive. The first sketches are thumbnails in which I mostly brainstorm, trying to find the basic rhythm, character introduction, action, choreography of the story, etc. The second phase of sketches, laid out as a dummy (a design/template that allows you to see the whole book planned out) focuses on the essential content of the story, as well as soundly composing the images. This is the working plan to be shared with editors and art directors. It’s important to understand that this design is as much for others as it is for oneself. This is where mistakes are caught.

Finally, in the last draft of sketches, details are included to a more specific degree. The emotions of your images many times are expressed in the details of your illustrations. It’s where things become funny, scary, thrilling, suspenseful, etc. This shouldn’t be confused with complexity—a simple picture has as much power as an ornate one. Once the dummy is okayed, it’s on to the finished work. Almost all of my books have been executed as oil paintings over acrylic under-paintings on illustration board. A recent book I illustrated was delivered as digitally rendered finishes. Whatever your medium of choice, the more confident you are of your plan, the more enjoyable the last part of the process will be. I leave color out of the initial plans because I prefer to be responsive when it comes to that, leaving a level of spontaneity for the end.

Milagros_jacket_finish72Lila: Let’s close out this conversation by returning to a book cover, the one you recently did for the e-book version of Meg Medina’s Milagros: A Girl from Away. It’s breathtaking, truly exceptional. I know Meg was thrilled with it!

Joe: Thanks for the kind words. Milagros is a great story and it was a wonderful opportunity to illustrate the cover of the e-book. After reading the manuscript, I couldn’t help responding to Milagros as a girl between two worlds. It’s the “between” part that intrigued me as a source for creating a provocative image. Milagros is not only traveling from one place to another, as she does in the story, she’s also between the clarity of a wide-open sky and the deep mystery and profundity of the ocean. The magical realism of the story, in my mind, calls for a more symbolic and open-ended image. Alternative ideas depicted Milagros closer to the viewer, larger in the design. This would emphasize Milagros more. A reader might respond to that kind of image, “That girl looks like me, i want to read about her.” It’s certainly popular to create covers that are more character-based, but, I’m glad that we decided to go the other way, that is, emphasizing the mystery, the peril of the journey, and the hopefulness and optimism of Milagros’ spirit. A reader here might ask, “Where is that girl going? What is she facing? Is she lost? Is she on her way somewhere? Is she safe? Will she get there? What will she find? Keeping her small in the design also helps the reader ask, “Who is she?” My first sketches didn’t include the manta ray, inclined to depict Milagros navigating her way alone, but, as we discussed, it’s a central part of the story. I’m glad mantas are such mysterious and, perhaps, very poetic creatures. I wanted it to have an ambiguous posture… is it a threat to her, or is it a witness, or, even something more? For me, the more questions you ask when looking at a cover, the better a cover does its job.

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To learn more about Joe’s craftsmanship and illustration technique, see this extensive interview by Kathleen Temean.

Want to see Joe in his studio and hear more of his story? Here’s a video interview, worth the double click-through!

 

Diversity in Kid Lit was ‘On Fire’ at National Latino Children’s Literature Conference

My signed conference poster! The gorgeous artwork comes from Laura Lacamara's new book, Dalia's Wondrous Hair.

My signed conference poster! The gorgeous artwork comes from Laura Lacamara’s new book, Dalia’s Wondrous Hair.

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Let me float down to earth, grab a keyboard and pound out a report about the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference. That was my self-talk on March 15. The two-day conference, held at the University of Alabama and headed by mover-and-shaker Dr. Jamie Naidoo, had wrapped up at 4 pm the previous day.

Sixteen hours later, my whole being still felt tingly with the residual vibrations of what we’d experienced: great dialogue, stimulating talks, and warm connections with people passionate about the same thing, increasing diversity in children’s books. And it’s amazing how many presentations referenced last year’s incendiary New York Times article on minority characters in kid lit. The conference stirred my juices, but before I could touch my keyboard to write about it, Marianne Snow posted a great recap on her blog. There’s no way that I could improve on her account. 

That’s not the end of the story. Over the same weekend, The New York Times published a pair of essays from prize-winning YA author Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher, an author-illustrator of note, on the scarcity of characters of color in children’s books. Spine tingling, timely, and powerful. Clearly, diversity in children’s books is a topic on fire!

And now, back to the conference. Since Marianne’s recap covers only the second day, here are select quotes and highlights from the first day:

NLCLC LogoLiterary agent Adriana Dominguez outlined some of the challenges facing Latin@ children’s literature: “Many editors think about Latino books as niche or institutional.” Neither of these spells the huge sales figures that the industry has become hungry for. She pointed to the Harry Potter phenomenon as a watershed moment in children’s publishing. Previously, marketing departments targeted libraries and schools, but the commercial success of Harry Potter and other blockbusters has shifted the dynamics.

Members of the audience asked how to best advocate for Latin@ children’s literature. Librarians can push these books, Dominguez said. She cited the late Rose Treviño as a personal mentor and a role model in the field of library services to children. Ms. Treviño was a beloved Houston public librarian who served the local Latin@ community and brought Latin@ books to the attention of a wider audience. Her passionate advocacy was captured in this extensive interview by Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Someone else asked, would more Latinos on the “inside” of publishing help to balance the equation? Yes, Dominguez said, because “you’re a stronger advocate for something you truly believe in.” She pointed out that graduate programs in publishing are recruiting zones for the “big five.”

In her keynote, recent Pura Belpré winner Meg Medina raised the topic of universal themes, those that address the experiences of all children, regardless of demographic labels. She reminded us that “Latino” is a uniquely American concept. Many Latin@ children grapple with the additional challenges of biculturalism. She shared that in her work, she strives to present a range of Latin@ characters, a “whole tapestry,” not merely those that the public has come to expect. (In her Monday post, Meg offered a terrific conference recap of her own.)

7789203Author-illustrator Laura Lacámara gave the day’s final keynote. Her journey into publishing has taken some interesting turns. She was first an illustrator of children’s books. Then came her debut as a writer, Floating on Mama’s Song, a story inspired by her mother’s devotion to opera. But Laura didn’t illustrate it; Yuyi Morales did. Now, hot off the presses is Laura’s newest book, her first to write and illustrate, the delightful Dalia’s Wondrous Hair (see the conference poster image, above). Count on a book talk in the near future!

The variety of breakout sessions boggled the mind. Thursday, I sat in on Lettycia Terrones’s illuminating talk on image-making in Latin@ children’s literature, followed by Araceli Esparza’s “Roots of Race in Chicano/Latino Picture Books,” another enriching experience. The next day, I heard an expert presentation by Catalina Lara on the Latin@ child and language.

Social media is an excellent tool, but let’s not forget the value of face-to-face meetings. They spark connections like nothing else. Next time you hear about a conference that addresses diversity or Latin@ children’s books, consider attending.

Book Review: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

By Edith Campbell

YaquiMeg Medina is an accomplished author who has won awards for Tia Isa Wants a Car and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind. Her latest book, Yaqui Dalgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is acquiring a growing list of recognition, including the Pura Belpré (a complete list of awards is at the bottom of this post). By the title, you might think that Yaqui is the main character in this realistic YA novel, but she’s not. This is Piadad “Piddy” Sanchez’s story. Just like with any bully, Yaqui seems to have taken things over.

When the novel begins, Piddy has just moved, leaving behind the school and neighborhood where she’s always felt at home. Medina quickly paints the picture of the new territory this young Latina must navigate, one where skin tone, country of origin, accent and ability to speak Spanish define where you sit as well as your place in the pecking order. Piddy shakes her hips in ways that unintentionally get too much attention and it’s on: Yaqui Delgado wants to kick her ass. Piddy’s mom can just look at Yaqui and know she’s up to no good. While Piddy’s mom may have no use for tough girls like Yaqui, Piddy cannot avoid them in her new school.

Piddy’s at that awkward age where she’s no longer a child, but not quite grown, either. She still cherishes the elephant necklace she got a few birthdays ago, but now even though she likes the idea, she knows she’s too old to celebrate her birthday like she did that time at the zoo. If she were still a little girl she could take her problems to her mom and could probably still do so if she were just a bit more mature. But Piddy doesn’t fully trust herself, and she’s also got this bully frightening her so much that—before long—she doesn’t even recognize herself.

When Piddy begins to have problems at school, she reaches out to her mother’s friend, Lila. Lila is like an aunt to Piddy. She’s the fun one who taught Piddy to dance and how to wear makeup, and she’s the one Piddy turns to when she wants to find out what really happened to her father.

Lila is part of the community in which Piddy’s story is grounded. Lila, her boyfriend Raul, the women at the beauty shop, and even the Ortegas provide spaces of comfort and familiarity for Piddy, and they nurture her as she struggles to find out who she is becoming. Piddy has two problems: she wants to know about her dad, and she can’t get Yaqui out of her head. For solutions, Piddy turns first to Lila and then to her old friend, Mitzi Ortega, who has recently moved to another area. These women are her touchstones as she moves from girl to woman. She wants to face Yaqui, but not even the support of Lila, Mitzi, and the others is enough to make that happen. We know that no one can give you this kind of strength; it comes from inside.

In her coming of age, Piddy finds Joey, a neighborhood boy who has had a very tough life. Medina writes their relationship as one that gives Piddy room to explore. While his character is not thoroughly developed, it is complete enough for the story, and their relationship helps us see a special tenderness in Piddy. Medina captures Piddy’s feelings and emotions in ways that will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has been the new kid or the kid who has been picked on. Piddy becomes a victim, losing any idea of who she is or for what she stands. Readers become part of the community that supports Piddy and wants her to stand up to Yaqui.

I’ve heard many shy away from this book, afraid of how rough it may be or turned off by the title. This is not a rough story! Despite the “ass” in the title, there’s no profanity, no drugs or alcohol, and only one scene of adolescent petting that is quite effective and touching. Piddy is a good student who wants to be a scientist and she comes from a thriving community. The novel illustrates that bullying can (and does) happen in any community, and in this book, the victim happens to be Piddy. Being a victim is rough, but Piddy is not a rough girl.

So, put the tape of the cover if you must, but put the book in your library. There are reasons for all the awards and recognition!

LEXILE: HL670

Edith Campbell

Edith Campbell is a mother, librarian, educator and quilter. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Cincinnati and MLS from Indiana University.  Her passion is promoting literacy in all its many forms to teens and she does this through her blog, CrazyQuiltEdi and in her work as an Education  Librarian at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. Edith currently serves as the IN State Ambassador for the United States Board on Books for Young People and is a past member of YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults selection committee.

Congratulations to ALA Youth Media Award Winners and Honor Books

The annual award announcements from the American Library Association at its midwinter meeting is like the Golden Globes-Oscars-Grammys for the kid lit world. This year, we were especially thrilled to see the number of books by and/or for Latin@s on the lists.

Congratulations to all the winners! You can find the full list here. We’re sending out an extra abrazo to the following authors and illustrators:

Pura Belpré (Illustrator) Award honoring a Latino illustrator whose children’s books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience: “Niño Wrestles the World,” written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales.

Three Belpré Illustrator Honor Books were selected: “Maria Had a Little Llama / María Tenía una Llamita,” illustrated and written by Angela Dominguez; “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale,” illustrated and written by Duncan Tonatiuh; and “Tito Puente: Mambo King / Rey del Mambo,” illustrated by Rafael López, written by Monica Brown.

           

Pura Belpré (Author) Award honoring a Latino writer whose children’s books best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience: “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass,” written by Meg Medina.

Three Belpré Author Honor Books were named: “The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist,” written by Margarita Engle; “The Living,” written by Matt de la Peña; and “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale,” written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh.

          

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award for most distinguished informational book for children: “Parrots over Puerto Rico,” written by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, and illustrated by Susan L. Roth.

Stonewall Book Award – Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award given annually to English-language works of exceptional merit for children or teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience: “Fat Angie,” written by e. E. Charlton-Trujillo.

William C. Morris Award for a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens: “Charm & Strange,” written by Stephanie Kuehn.

Author Meg Medina Talks About Writing Villains

 

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Meg Medina knows how to connect. When she writes, her words crackle with strong storytelling and believable characters. When she stands at a microphone, her Cuban-American-inflected vitality will reduce you to tears—of laughter. You can imagine how much her young readers love her. So do we! And we’re delighted to present an interview with Meg about her latest book.

First, here’s an introduction to her earlier work. She’s the author of a picture book, Tía Isa Wants a Car, winner of the 2012 Ezra Jack Keats New Writers Award; a middle-grade novel, Milagros: Girl from Away; and a previous novel for young adults, The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.

Tia Isa Wants a Car      Milagros: Girl from Away      The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind

Meg’s most recent contribution to YA bookshelves is the Kirkus starred Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick, 2013), a gripping story set in Queens, NY, where sophomore Piddy Sanchez lands after a crosstown move. Readers come to know Piddy at her best and worst, as she grapples with a new high school environment. Let’s just say that everything gets dicier when she enters a bully’s lair.

What can we learn from Meg’s gift for storytelling? For one thing, she writes with a keen eye toward characterization. Her eponymous villain, Yaqui Delgado, is a craft lesson on legs. Happily, Meg has agreed to unpack a bit of her villain-making magic for us.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Meg, thank you for talking to us about craft. Your novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass puts the protagonist in a terrible bind. Before we discuss Yaqui, can you give us a better sense of who Piddy is and how she lands in this fix?

Meg: Unfortunately, Piddy is at a new school. Essentially, she’s the little gazelle that got separated from the herd. Never good. Up until that point, she’s an ordinary girl. She’s bright, engaged in school, but like lots of us at 16, she’s struggling with her mother and is starting to question the choices her parents have made. The fact that she gets targeted is purely random. A horrible fact of bullying is that it has very little to do with the victim. Kids can get bullied for virtually any reason…for being smart or for being slow; for being unattractive or for being too attractive; for being poor or for having too much money. The reason for the attack usually resides in what makes the bully nervous or insecure. Kids can easily forget that. It’s easy to internalize the message that they are in some way a loser.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: You give readers a wicked combination of physical and cyber-bullying. How did you become interested in girl bullies? Can you share tips about using hot-button issues in fiction?

Meg: To be honest, I don’t think about hot button issues to write about. They change too quickly! In this case, I had been invited to write a short story for an anthology about Latinas as a turning point in their lives. As I thought about turning points in my own life, I decided to base the story on a bullying incident I lived through long ago, mostly because it made such a lasting negative impact on how I saw myself and how I moved through the world. The anthology project died, but my editor at Candlewick asked me to turn the story into a novel. I layered in new characters and dimensions that hadn’t been part of the story, and I added in the details that are part of bullying today, such as YouTube and social media.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Yaqui fits a certain type of inner-city bad girl that many of us know only from the movies, but by the end of the story, she’s achieved a dimensional status that satisfies and amazes. What was your process like for keeping Yaqui from collapsing into stereotype?

Meg: I really just concentrated on writing the truth about my own bully long ago. My feelings were a strange mix of hatred, dread, and admiration for all her power. The fact is, no one is all good or bad, and the gloriously bad character is often charismatic or fearless in a way that’s really interesting. Also, no one behaves so violently or poorly without a reason. We don’t have to excuse a character’s awful behavior, but it helps to understand it. I dabbed all of those things on Yaqui as a character to make her compelling, and to make her a worthy foe.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Through much of the story, Yaqui remains aloof and doesn’t enter Piddy’s space until the right moment. Your portrayal of her evokes a wolf silhouetted against the moon. Chilling. Please share more about enhancing dread through this technique.

Meg: Well, dread is actually the perfect word. I worked on dread inside Piddy as character and inside the reader. For the reader, watching Yaqui circle closer is like watching the fin cut through the surface of the water behind a swimmer at the beach. Oh no! Something horrible is coming, but you can’t stop it. In this case, it’s not an ocean, but a school and neighborhood, places where we think we ought to be safe. In terms of building dread inside of Piddy, I tried to recreate the feelings we might have when we’re in a room or social situation with someone we really dislike. Think of how that goes: You avoid eye contact. You try your best to think of something else, to look calm, to avoid the spot where that person is standing. But all you can think of is that person and the awkwardness of being nearby. Their presence becomes oppressive.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: There’s a powerful scene where Piddy begins to adopt Yaqui’s look. She pulls her hair back into a severe bun and plucks her brows to a thin line. She puts on dark lipstick and steps back to admire her handiwork as “expressionless and strangely vicious.” It’s a horrifying turn of events. Can you talk about pushing your protagonist this close to the edge of villainy?

Meg: Pain can lead us to some terrible places. In Piddy’s case, she tries on the Yaqui costume, so to speak, as a way to explore and protect herself. If you’re scary and vicious, who will bother you? I took her to that edge because as a writer you always make sure the stakes are very high for your character. I was after a problem that threatened her very sense of who she was, a problem so tangled that an easy answer was hard for her – and for the reader – to solve.

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Piddy’s best friend, Mitzi, has moved, too. She’s blossoming in the paradise of the suburbs and is mostly unavailable to Piddy. She reminds us of what Piddy’s life used to be. What else does sweet Mitzi contribute? What do apprentice writers need to know about using secondary characters for the benefit of the story’s arc?

Meg: Yes, Mitzi definitely shows us the “old” Piddy. She wasn’t in my first draft except in that sentence that refers to Piddy’s friend moving away. But as I worked on the manuscript, I built up scenes to show the old Piddy and also to keep a path open for the way back. I also liked how she worked as yet another version of a normal Latina girl: brainy, scientific, sports-impaired, middle class.

Photo credit: Petite Shards Productions

Photo credit: Petite Shards Productions

Latin@s in Kid Lit: Meg, mil gracias! We celebrate your achievements in Latin@ kid lit and look forward to your next book!

To learn more about Meg’s work, the latest on her author appearances and much more of interest to readers and writers, please visit and follow her blog.