Monica Brown is the award-winning author of a number of children's books, including My Name Is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me llamo Celia: La vida de Celia Cruz and Waiting for the Biblioburro. In our interview with Monica, she offers a behind-the-scenes look at her books and asks, "How far would you go for a book?"
Visit Monica's author website to find more great resources, including teacher guides!
Reading as a child
Like a lot of kids, I loved Dr. Seuss, and I liked any sort of fantasy and ghost stories and adventure, which is interesting, because now I enjoyed writing a magical realist book for children, Chavela and the Magic Bubble.
But actually, there was this book and it was a religious book that I loved, and it was the story of Esther, and I think part of why I loved it is because she was so dark and looked more like me, and it was my only book with a character like her.
I was very aware of being Latina, and of having a North American father and a South American mother. And we had a neighborhood that was mixed with many ethnicities, but I do believe we were the only Hispanic family on the block. And so just the way my mom called me to come in when I was little, "Moniquita! Moniquita!" and my friends would tease me and laugh and call me "Moniquita." So I was aware of that, for sure.
My mother's stories
My mother was a great storyteller. And she had long red fingernails that she flashed and was very passionate, and so, actually, when I do school visits, I kind of joke that, "This is not gonna be me in a rocking chair, this is not your average storytelling author visit, it's more like an author rock concert," so I actually incorporate songs my mom sung to me as a child in my books, and when I go on a school visit I sing with the children and I dance and I try to engage them.
100 Years of Solitude
Believe it or not, a pivotal moment in my life was when I first read 100 Years of Solitude as a senior in high school. So this is what even got me to go in a declared literature major. I loved it, I had a deep sense of recognition. My mother was one of nine children, and her mother was one of 11, and she was born in northern Peru, and I grew up between two continents, though I lived in the U.S. and English was my first language, I never had encountered a work that so captured the sense of family and culture and magic of Latin America. And so that was really pivotal for me.
But then, I thought that if you are interested in literature you become an English major, and I did, and I loved it, but I didn't encounter for a long time someone like Gabriel García Márquez or Mario Vargas Llosa, another writer my mom gave me because she, of course, wanted me to read a Peruvian writer. It wasn't until my senior year in college that I became aware that, you know, I can become an English professor and I can teach this amazing body of U.S. Latino lit.
A teacher who mattered
The teacher that changed my life the most didn't come until college, and it was my senior year at UC Santa Barbara, and they had just hired their first Chicano literature professor in the English department, and because I love to read so much, I went in as a declared English major. And for the first time I read Denise Chavez and Cherríe Moraga and all these writers, and I turned in my first paper, and he took me aside, his name's Carl Gutierrez-Jones, and he said, "Monica, you're a great writer. You can write. Have you thought about grad school?"
And the truth was that I had never thought about grad school, and it took this young Chicano professor telling me that, "You are a writer and this is something you should think about," to put that idea in my head, and it stuck, and that sort of changed my path.
Starting as a children's author
I began writing children's book serendipitously, because I had been a journalist, a professional journalist, my first job out of college, for an American-owned paper in Guadalajara, and then my second career as a writer was as a literary scholar, and I wrote about Chicano and Latino literature, and that was my specialty, and then I had children.
And I started to read and discover the world of children's books, rediscover it, and there were really no stories about people that I thought were pretty important, about people like Gabriel García Márquez and Gabriela Mistral and Celia Cruz. And so I first became interested because there were stories I wanted my children to know, my daughters Isabela and Juliana.
With my daughter Isabela, we would read her like 20 or 15. Of course, both my husband and I are English professors, so we're a little obsessive, and I'm also the daughter of an artist. My mother was an amazing artist.
And I actually think to write for children, that's the toughest thing, because really you write for artists, too. So the children's book is the place where text and art meet. And I think that if I have a special gift, it's to be able to write illustratable action and to really think visually. So all these experiences in my life came together, and then once I started, I couldn't stop. I loved it so much, and I still do.
It's all a surprise. I'm always surprised when I start researching a new figure, and what's fun is we usually know these figures, like Celia Cruz, like Pablo Neruda, as adults. But what I do is I go into their childhood, 'cause that's what children relate to most. So I get to find out cool details, like Pablo Neruda wrote with green pens only and liked to wear a top hat.
One thing I recently found out about Pablo Picasso, which is a book that I have coming out with Santiana in 2012, was that as a child, he had a lot of difficulty with math, because instead of seeing, like, the number 7, he would see an upside-down nose, or instead of seeing two 6s, he would see two angel's wings.
And so I loved that idea so much, and that one little detail made me decide to name the book "What Pablo Saw." Because we know about his art, he saw things in pink, he saw things fractured and put back together again. He saw things in blue, he had all these periods of his art, the creation of his art, so I loved that, and I also found out that his first words were "piz, piz" for lapiz, and I loved that idea.
So sometimes this small detail that isn't even well-known from an artist's childhood will inspire the shape of a whole book.
A spark of recognition
I think Latino children identify with my characters a lot and they've said so, and just their enthusiasm and exuberance. And I actually think they appeal to all children; however, there is this special spark of recognition when I visit a school and I introduce myself in Spanish.
Because I am pretty official and sometimes they have never met a Latino or a Latina that has written a book. So it is pretty exciting because I see their minds open. And one of the things I tell them is I want them to share their stories with the world and maybe our books will be side by side in a library someday.
I love kids seeing themselves in my books because just as I mentioned before, I never saw myself as someone who would go and be a writer, much less get a PhD and become a professor. I needed a teacher to say you can do this and have you thought of this.
And I think when children see these amazing Latinos and children see these figures who grew up without privilege and see what they accomplished, then maybe their horizons are less limited.
I think the best way to engage reluctant readers is by giving them really good stories. I think that's the magic of school visits and storytelling because you get to pull all the passion into the story and act it out.
But I also think in any good children's book, there's a world of possibilities — curricular possibilities, musical possibilities. And so with my books, most of them have curriculum guides that are developed by really amazing elementary educators and education professors.
Because I think the book is the inspirational part and then it opens a world and then they can learn about geography or learn about the different steps between the field and the table in terms of the food they eat every day.
I love doing readings and author visits and I think I get energy from children. I have been able to travel all over the United States and even internationally with my books. I had a really special trip last summer to Panama and I brought my daughter Juliana.
It was for the International Feria de Libros in Panama City and I was a representative of the U.S. Embassy, which seemed kind of intimidating. But we had a rigid schedule with lots of presentations to teachers, etc., in the convention center, but finally after about the third day of that I said, "We need to go, I need to be with children; you are wasting me just keeping me in this convention center."
So we cancelled a few things and we spent the day at a school just outside on the edge of Panama City. And it was incredible and my daughter was right there by my side. And then we went to the children's hospital and spent some time with children in the burn unit, which was also incredible and moving.
I was happy to have my eleven-year-old by my side because she could start to learn what which I wish everyone knew, is that how lucky we are and how privileged and then also what responsibility I think we all have to give something back to those who aren't, and then to receive so much in return.
Part II: Children's Books
Working with Illustrators
I have worked with amazing illustrators, Raul Colon, Joe Cepeda, Rafael López, John Parra, Rudy Gutierrez, but what's happening now, now that I've been writing for years, things are coming full circle.
So my very first picture book that was published and the first picture book that, for Rafael López, My Name is Celia/Me Llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz, that launched both of our careers in children's lit, and now in 2013 in January, we are gonna collaborate again on a book called Tito Puente, King of Mambo. So we've talked about the queen of Salsa together, and now we're gonna get to publish a book on Tito Puente, so it feels like coming full circle.
Listening to Celia
When I was writing the book on Celia Cruz, I listened to her music all the time, and I know that Rafael López, my illustrator, did as well. And it couldn't have been any better. I feel really so lucky to get to do what I do, because I get to spend time with these amazing figures like Celia and be inspired by their creativity, and then hopefully my books inspire children to listen to her music, and I think they do.
The first children's book I ever wrote was about Gabriela Mistral, an amazing poet, and she wasn't just a poet but she shaped education in Latin America and Mexico. She was an advocate for education for girls and for the poor. And I thought her story was incredibly compelling. And the first thing I thought that was compelling about it is that she changed her name as a teenager to Gabriela Mistral.
And nobody, my children's teachers, the children and the parents that I knew, even knew who she was, so I wanted to share her story and I wanted to share the South American woman's story. She won a Nobel Prize for poetry, the first Latin American to win a Nobel Prize for literature.
Writing about writers
Well, I enjoy writing children's nonfiction, biographies, and as an English professor, I love writing about writers, but that's a big challenge, because I have to capture the moment that they become inspired, and that's not always action-filled. But what I do to begin with, and what I did for my book on Gabriela Mistral, for my book on Gabriel García Márquez and for my book on Pablo Neruda, is I reread all their works, so it's a pretty delightful form of research, and I just take notes and think of images and how I will bring their work to children.
And what's so funny is I was worried, like how do you explain something like magical realism to children, this genre, and then I thought, they understand it more than adults do, because the magical and the real isn't so separate for them, so that was kind of a relief when I realized that, that actually they were the perfect audience.
Writing about Pelé
I loved writing the book about Pelé, because I am a soccer fanatic. I love soccer, and his story is incredible. And I love sharing his story with children, because when he was a child, he was so poor that he didn't have shoes, and his team, they would be made fun of 'cause they were the barefoot team. And they didn't even have a soccer ball often, so they would steal a toronja, they would steal a grapefruit and play with a grapefruit.
Or they would stuff a sock with newspapers, and I just think that's in such contrast with kids today and our expensive activities, including my own children, but I think it's amazing that barefoot with a newspaper soccer ball, he became the most acclaimed, famous soccer player in the world. So I like sharing that story.
Writing about Dolores Huerta I consider to be one of the honors of my life, because I've gotten to meet with her and talk to her and even work with her. And what I wanted to do, and I think it's reflected in the title, is place her alongside César Chávez in history. So the book's called Lado a Lado/Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and César Chávez.
And Dolores is still living and working, 81 years old, still committed to social justice, and though there were a few wonderful books on César Chávez, there were not as many about Dolores Huerta, and I thought she was a really great role model for children and an example of social activism and commitment.
Chavela and the Magic Bubble
I wrote Chavela and the Magic Bubble right after I finished my biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And I wanted to write a magic realist text for children. And what's funny about it is I consciously did that, but the person who gave me the actual idea for the book was my daughter Isabella Chavela, my Chavelita.
And it was prompted by a question, and that is, "Mommy, where does chewing gum come from?" And she is such a smart little girl, I think she was a first grader, but I thought, "I need to give her a really good answer." So I did some research and as it turned out, and a lot of people already know this, it comes from a tree. Chewing gum comes from a tree.
The original chicle was from the sapodía trees in southern Mexico and Central America in the rain forest. And I just had this idea, what if a little girl found some magic rain forest chicle and what if she blew a bubble that got bigger and bigger and bigger?
And what if her feet lifted off the ground and what if she floated out of the bedroom window and had a big adventure? So that is what started that book and it was a true pleasure.
Taking care of chicle trees
Well, it was amazing because they are — while I was writing Chavela and the Magic Chicle, I did research about the rainforest in southern Mexico and Central America. And how, at least currently, there are populations that are trying to act as stewards to the trees.
We have one company in the U.S. that brings natural rain forest chicle and it is Glee gum. And they are committed to putting back some of the resources because you can't tap the trees constantly or they will be depleted.
And so I thought the book would be a good opportunity for children to think about what it means when you get a livelihood from the earth, from trees, and how to act as stewards and to care for the trees. And then also to appreciate the gifts that they give us.
Writing Butterflies on Carmen Street
I wrote the book Butterflies on Carmen Street/Mariposas en la Calle Carmen, about immigration, actually. Very subtly, because you can't just be didactic and try to have a lesson before you create the art, but nonetheless, I live in Arizona, and as many people know, there's some really hateful rhetoric around immigration and immigrants, and as the daughter of an immigrant, I wanted to do something different.
And one of my daughters, at her school, one of the classes had this butterfly project. So they got little caterpillars, and they created little butterfly houses for them with milkweed, and I started thinking about that, because I thought of monarch butterflies and how in the western United States and Canada they go south for the winter to Michoacán, Mexico.
And it's not just one butterfly that goes in the winter all the way down to Mexico, comes back up, goes to Canada, it's generations. And I thought, what if we started thinking about immigration and migration the way it occurs in nature, just as part of the cycle of life and survival? So I wrote this book about a little girl who's Mexican-American, and she lives in Arizona, and she gets a monarch caterpillar, and she runs home and she's excited, and she tells her grandfather about it, and he says, "Well, I'm from Michoacán, and the butterflies came to my village."
And she learns more about Mexico, and it makes her really, really want to go and visit, and the last lines of the book, when she releases her butterfly, she's kind of nervous, 'cause she's gotten she's really, you know, how will he find his way home, and she realizes that Mexico is the home in his heart, and someday she will fly away too. So that's the story of Butterflies on Carmen Street.
It ended up being a book that in a way changed my life as a writer, and here's why. It's also, I should note, the book that I dedicated to my mom, who came north from Peru, though she had a much easier path than a lot of immigrants, because she married my father, who was a U.S. citizen, and became a citizen.
So one day, in my office at Northern Arizona University, I was in between classes prepping, I usually get a little stressed, I might have been grading, and the phone rang.
And I picked up the phone, and a woman introduced herself and said, "I am not a stalker. I just want to let you know," and I thought, "Well, a stalker wouldn't really say 'I'm not a stalker,'" but I kept listening, and she said, "I just wanted to tell you, I'm a teacher, and I want to tell you about the impact your book, Butterflies on Carmen Street, had on a little boy named Joel."
And I said, "Okay," and she said, "I was his kindergarten teacher a few years ago, and he was really sick, he is sick, and our class did a butterfly project, and Joel's butterfly, the wings took a while to dry off, and he cheered his butterfly on and cheered his butterfly on, and finally the butterfly took off, and it was so moving, 'cause Joel had difficulty walking himself."
"And I saw your book at a conference, and I thought, 'I need to buy this for Joel.' So she bought Butterflies on Carmen Street, and she brought it to Joel, and she said, 'Let's read it together, do you want to read it in English or Spanish?' and Joel said, 'I'll read it in English,' 'cause he was really proud of his English."
And she read it in Spanish, and after the book was done, Joel asked her a question. And he said to his teacher, "What do you think happens when you die?" And she said, like any really good teacher, "What do you think happens when you die, Joel?" And he said, "I think you turn into a butterfly and fly away." And then he said, "I think I'm going to turn into a butterfly soon." And she asked him, "Where do you think you're going to go, Joel? Where are you going to fly to?"
And he says, "Well, first I'm going to fly over to the school and say hello to everyone, 'cause it's been a while, and then I'm going to fly back to Mexico, because I miss Mexico, and then I'm going to fly up to Heaven and talk to God." And she told me this story in the middle of an average day, and I was astounded, and I really felt like I had this gift of grace from this little boy.
And she said that she was calling me because she wanted me to know that they really loved Joel and they were going to do a butterfly garden in his honor, and they wanted to donate some of my books to the children's hospital ward he spent a lot of time at, and I of course said, "Well, let me talk to Joel, let me send him more of my books, I want to meet him," and she said, "You know, he is really sick, he can't even talk on the phone right now."
And I said, "Okay," and we hung up the phone, and his story stayed with me for the next two days, and so she had given me her name and nothing else, and I had given her my publisher saying, "We're going donate books to your school," and so I looked her up, and it turned out she had been a Teacher of the Year, of course, and I found her e-mail address, and I e-mailed her and said, "I am still thinking of Joel, let's talk. What can I do for him?" and she e-mailed me back and said that he had died the previous morning.
And she sent me his obituary and his beautiful picture of his smiling face, which I still have and really cherish, and in the obituary it talked about how much he loved to draw. And he loved to draw, more than anything else, butterflies. So that was amazing, and so that will be a special book to me forever, because it helped this little boy think about death in a really wise and more peaceful way.
Clara and the Curandera
Clara and the Curandera — I love this story because it's about a little girl who is really grumpy and she is tired of having to share with her five brothers and sisters. She has to do too much homework, she reads too much.
So her mother is exasperated and sends her down the hall to the curandera. And the curandera has an interesting plan for Clara and that's to have her read more books and do more chores. Not just take out her own family's garbage, but take out the garbage of two elderly women in the building and to give all her toys to her siblings.
And she does it and some pretty special things happen. Her siblings are so happy and they all play together and the elderly widows down the hall give her hugs and cookies and she finds out she loves to read and she's never read more thanks to the curandera.
And then the curandera says, "Okay, you're done and here's a doll for you and now you don't have to do all these extra things." And it turns out she misses them. So it's sort of a book about being generous and giving.
The original title of Clara and the Curandera was Grumpy Clara and the Curandera, actually, because she is very grumpy, but not so much at the end.
Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match
Marisol McDonald is the character most near and dear and close to my heart. It is also the book I had the most difficult time finding a publisher for, which is pretty interesting. And I ended up with Children's Book Press, an amazing non-profit children's press, and that might be connected to why they embraced Marisol so wholeheartedly.
She is a child that is half Peruvian, indigenous Peruvian and half Scottish, which is similar to my background, though I am a lot more than that. And she gets teased for all sorts of reasons because it's not just that she's bilingual and biracial, but she is a non-conformist. And this books celebrates that and celebrates how one little girl deals with the teasing and the pressures just to be like everyone else.
When I wrote Marisol McDonald, it brought back wonderful memories and stories. And one of them is in the author's note about one thing my family has is freckles, lots of freckles, which isn't as common for Peruvians.
But my Tío Cipi, my Tío Cipriano, used to tell me the story that the reason our family has freckles is because my grandmother, Estele Valdivieso, was once stirring a big pot of chocolate on the stove and he reached for it and it splattered everywhere and it left chocolate sprinkles on everyone's toes and noses.
But what is interesting about Marisol McDonald is the title itself actually came from a negative comment someone made about not matching and what's with our names because our surnames, some of our surnames are names like McIntosh and Brown, obviously. And so I liked that juxtaposition.
Waiting for the Biblioburro
I first heard of Luis Soriano, the librarian from Colombia who has a traveling library with his two burros, Alpha and Beto, through a New York Times article by Simone Romero. And I was amazed at this story.
I was amazed at his vision because he lives in Colombia in an area that has seen some violence and near areas that are so poverty stricken that they are no libraries, but in some cases no schools either.
So with his two donkeys this man, this young man travels and brings books to children and teaches too. And I found out he was trying to build a library himself too in La Gloria. And I was so inspired by his story and so was someone else, a filmmaker, Valentina Canavasio with Acoya Productions.
And she did a short film on Luis Soriano and it aired on PBS and he became a CNN hero. And I, through my own research, made contact with Simone and Valentina and I got in contact with Luis.
And I interviewed him and I talked to him and I told him that I wanted to write a book inspired by him, not a biography this time, but a fictional book. And I asked for his blessing and his permission, and he gave it.
So once all that was taken care of, again, I had interviewed him, I had donated books to his library. And I decided to tell his story in an unusual way. Instead of telling it from his perspective, I decided to come up with a fictional story that was from the perspective of a little girl named Ana who loved books, but only had one. All of a sudden she wakes up and to the clip clop of the burros and he brings books to her. So that is why it's called Waiting for the Biblioburro.
All kinds of libraries
Well, researching Biblioburro was eye opening because we've had libraries in covered wagons, there are libraries that were on the backs of camels, libraries on boats. And there's a school in San Diego that was inspired by my book because they were, I think, a charter school that didn't have a library.
And they got a little cart and that was their biblioburro to start with that went from room to room. So I really liked that. But I just like, I like anyone who wants to put books in the hands of children. And that's what Luis does and that is what all librarians do and most teachers, too, and librarians are teachers.
So in a way, this book was an homage to all of them and a celebration of what some people will do and how some people, how far some people will go for a book. In this book I say how far would you go for a book and how far would a librarian travel to bring a book to you.
Excerpt: Waiting for the Biblioburro
Hi, my name is Monica Brown and I am going to read from my book Waiting for The Biblioburro.
On a hill behind a tree there is a house. In the house there is a bed and on the bed there is a little girl named Anna fast asleep, dreaming about the world outside and beyond the hill.
When Anna wakes up to the roosters, ki-ki-ki, papa is already at work on the farm and mommy is busy in the garden. Anna bathes her little brother and feeds the goats and collects the eggs to sell at the market.
After breakfast Anna and her mother walk down the hill. Anna closes her eyes against the hot sun and wishes she was back in the cool of the house with her libro, her book.
Anna has read her book, her only book, so many times she knows it by heart. The book was a gift from her teacher for working so hard on her reading and writing. But last fall her teacher moved away and now there is no one to teach Anna and the other children of her village.
So at night on her bed in the house on the hill, Anna makes up her own cuentos and tells stories to her little brother to help him fall asleep. She tells him stories about make believe creatures that live in the forest and the mountains and the sea. She wishes for new stories to read, but her teacher with the books, is gone.
One morning Anna wakes up to the sounds of taca tac, clip, clop and a loud ee-ah, ee-ah. When Anna looks down the hill below her house, she sees a man with a sign that reads "Biblio Burro." With the man there are two burros. What are they carrying? Libros, books. Anna runs down the hill to the man with the sign and the burros and the books. Other children run to him, too, skipping down hills and stomping through fields.
Excerpt: Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match
My name is Monica Brown and this is my book, Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match/Marisol McDonald No Combina.
My name is Marisol McDonald and I don't match. At least that's what everyone tells me. I play soccer with my cousin Tato and he says, "Marisol, your skin is brown like mine, but your hair is the color of carrots. You don't match."
"Actually, my hair is the color of fire, I say," and kick the ball over Tato's head and into the goal. My brother says, "Marisol, those pants don't match that shirt, they clash." But I love green polka dots and purple stripes. I think they go great together, don't you?
I also love peanut butter and jelly burritos and speaking English, Spanish, and sometimes both. "Can I have a puppy, a furry sweet perrito, I asked my parents, por favor?"
"Quizas," mommy says.
"Maybe," dad says, smiling and winking.
Monica Brown, Ph.D. is the author of many award-winning books for children, including My Name Is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me llamo Celia: La vida de Celia Cruz (Luna Rising), a recipient of the Américas Award for Children's Literature and a Pura Belpré Honor. Her picture book Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez/Lado a lado: La historia de Dolores Huerta y Cesar Chavez (Rayo/HarperCollins) was an NAACP Image Award nominee and Tejas Star Book Award finalist.
Monica's books are inspired by her Peruvian-American heritage and desire to share Latino/a stories with children. "I write from a place of deep passion, joy, and commitment to producing the highest possible quality of literature for children. In my biographies, the lives of my subjects are so interesting and transformational that I am simply giving them voice for a young audience. I don't think it is ever too early to introduce children to the concepts of magical realism, social justice, and dreaming big!"
Her other books include Chavela and the Magic Bubble (Clarion), Pelé, King of Soccer/Pelé, el rey del fútbol (Rayo/HarperCollins), Pablo Neruda: The Poet of the People (Henry Holt), Marisol McDonald Doesn't Match/Marisol McDonald no combina (Children's Book Press), Waiting for the Biblioburro (Tricycle Press), and Clara and the Curandera/Clara y la curandera (Pinata Books).
Monica is a Professor of English at Northern Arizona University, specializing in U.S. Latino Literature and Multicultural Literature. She also writes and publishes scholarly work with a Latino/a focus, including Gang Nation: Delinquent Citizenship in Puerto Rican and Chicano and Chicana Literature; and numerous scholarly articles and chapters on Latino/a literature and cultural studies. She is a recipient of the prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship on Chicano Cultural Literacies from the Center for Chicano Studies at the University of California. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Flagstaff, Arizona.