By Mariela Santos-Muñiz
What’s it like to be a Latinx author writing children’s books? Every author’s journey is unique, although many do share similarities. Here is Alexandra Alessandri’s perspective.
A Colombian-American poet, English college professor and children’s book author, her book Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! comes out later this year. Alessandri spoke about her journey as an author thus far, and her thoughts on writing bilingual children's books, within a publishing industry that's in need of more diversity and inclusion.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: My first question is how did you start writing? And how did you decide to write stories that were bilingual stories?
A: I think I’ve written in some way, shape, or form all my life. I come from a family that really values reading and books, and I have a great uncle actually who was a novelist and a poet in Colombia. I grew up hearing about that and I would just write poems. I started really with poetry and making up stories, but I didn’t start pursuing writing for publication probably until a few years after my son was born. I was teaching English at the college and I was kind of working and all that, but I started really loving writing, reading the stories to my son. I decided to go back to school and try to just kind of find where I was, where I fit in in terms of what I wrote. My dad passed away around that time, about six months after my son was born and, I think a lot of the need to write started from there, the birth of my son and the death of my dad.
But it wasn’t until I was introduced to writing for children that I really said, “this is where I want to be, this is what I want to write”. I think the act of writing bilingually is an organic decision, it’s not really something that I said “this is what I’m going to do” but “this is who I am.”
I don’t know if that makes sense but I can’t extrapolate my bilingual self from my stories because of my reality, and my son’s reality, even though I didn’t do as great of a jobs as I would’ve loved to do, but my reality growing up and our reality in our community and within my family, is bilingual. As I was saying, oftentimes that looks Spanish, sometimes that looks in Spanish, but that bilingual nature is just automatically a part of who I am; it’s my reality and so it’s just the reality that I want to capture in the story.
Q: My second question is, how do you pick what stories you write? How, how or where do you get your inspiration from?
A: That’s a great question. I get it from - there’s different places. I deal a lot with memory. I’m fascinated with memory and just taking bits and pieces of the experiences and emotions from growing up that I kind of tap into. For example, Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! - the main character is visiting Colombia, visiting the finca with her abuelita for New Year’s Eve, and while I never went for New Year’s to Colombia, I very much went to my uncle’s finca and I was very shy. A lot of that shyness that Ava Gabriela experiences in meeting all the slew of family that she didn’t know she had, was very much based on a lot of my memories of when I was little.
But also, I do a lot of observing. I observe my own son, I observe the kids of friends, Ava Gabriela, the story of the New Year part was inspired by our New Year’s two years ago, with our neighbors and our friends and their daughter. Really, really shy, she didn’t speak much but for New Year’s, when the fireworks started, she got so excited that she just couldn’t help but jump and dance and sing and just reach everyone. New Year, Ava Gabriela, really was a mashup of my memories as a kid and also this present-day scene that came about.
Q: Following that, there are other bilingual books in English and Spanish for children of course, but at the same time, Latinx or Hispanic characters are underrepresented in children’s publishing, in children’s books. My question is, what do you think needs to happen in order for there to be more diverse children’s books?
A: I think it needs to start within publishing itself, editors and publishers are mostly white. I think we need a shift in the culture within publishing. There’s often a lot of, at least in terms of writers, a lot of fear that well, they’ve already reached that limit or that quota, so there’s no more room for the stories. But just like we have a variety of representation amongst the white experience, we need that multiple representation within the Latinx experience. We’re not a monolith, we are individual cultures when we all fit under that Latinx umbrella, but our individual cultures are unique. There’s a lot of nuances that differ from culture to culture and even within the same culture.
So, to be able to truly kind of get that vast experience or reality across all Latinx communities there needs to be a change within publishing. We are going to publish multiple stories, it’s not just “oh well, we have our one representative and that’s it, we’re good.” We need more.
Q: Are there any kind of changes that you would like to see in children’s books specifically? Or bilingual books specifically? For example, do you think that there should be more bilingual books? Or do you think that there are certain topics that should be written about more but are not written about very much?
A: We do need more bilingual books. We need to be more comfortable both as authors and within publishing in tapping into that bilingual reality that exists within our community. Also showing the nuances of that, but we also need more books that feature communities that are underrepresented within the Latinx community … we need more of those stories that often end up getting left out.
Q: As a Latinx author yourself, what do you hope that readers get from your stories?
A: Well I want them to feel seen for those who share similar experiences. I want them to feel seen in the story and in the cultures. Until recently, I really didn’t see Colombia in the pages of children’s books unless it had to do something with guerrilla or other stuff and you know, I’m thinking more YA here. I want readers, those who share similar experiences to see themselves, but I also want to kind of show other readers the beauty that comes from my country. I want them to see the magic or the, the different cultural aspects that exist.
My second book, while it is not explicitly about Colombia, it is explicitly about being a Spanish speaker starting school without knowing English. That was my experience when I started kindergarten and there is that feeling, that fear, of what is going to happen? I kind of wanted to shine a light on that so I’m hoping that readers will see themselves in these stories regardless of their individual cultures but also that they’ll learn a little something about Colombia.
Q: Okay. For my next question, I’m wondering what can you tell me about your next book?
A: I can tell you that this one will be in Spanish and English. It’s going to be published in both, not yet sure about how that’s going to work, but it is going to be published in Spanish and in English. As I mentioned, it is about a little girl who is starting school but she doesn’t speak English, she only speaks Spanish. It is a friendship story and a story about finding unique ways to bridge the communication barriers when that is a reality of so many of our kids here in the United States. It’s going to be hopefully a very colorful book. I am really excited about it; it comes out Fall of next year - Fall 2021.
Q: My final question is if you have any advice, both for writers that are looking to get their Latinx stories published and if you have any advice for parents that are trying to raise bilingual kids and using books to try to do that?
A: So, for writers - don’t give up on your dream. It’s a hard business, it’s a hard journey, but I think persistence is very important. Learn all you can, keep growing in your craft but also in the business, because it is a business. I think ultimately that perseverance, that persistence is very important.
For parents, expose your kids to Spanish books… give them the literature, read to them in Spanish, speak to them in Spanish. I didn’t do as good of a job in this as I should have and my son is now 12. I’m trying very hard to make amends for the things that I didn’t do as much as I should have. Getting books in Spanish… start with picture books, speak some in Spanish, sign them up for Spanish classes, which is what I’m actually doing right now with my son- signing him up for Spanish. Just really being intentional in providing the Spanish, whether it’s books, whether it’s in actually speaking in Spanish, introducing them to the culture, whether it’s your own home culture or all the different cultures within um Spanish-speaking America. Just being intentional about it
Q: Is there anything else that you’d like to add before closing out the interview?
A: I’m really excited about these books, I’m really excited. I know the numbers are not where we want them to be, but from the moment I started actively pursuing publication, I want to say it was around 2012 actually, that I started seriously buckling down and saying, “this is what I want to do,” I’ve seen an increase, I’ve seen an improvement. I’m hopeful that we can keep at it, that we can keep seeing these changes for the better.
Photo of Alexandra Alessandri by Dawn Yap @ Yap Originals
Mariela Santos-Muñiz is a freelance journalist and writer, currently based in Puerto Rico. Bilingual in English and Spanish, her written work has appeared in Nylon, The Daily Dot, Book Riot, Bustle, and more. Santos-Muñiz is an alum of Boston University, with an M.A. in International Relations and International Communications. Follow her on Twitter @mellamomariela or find her at marielasantosmuniz.squarespace.com.