Crisp storytelling. Compelling characters. Beautiful illustration. Author Monica Brown, Ph.D. captured my imagination. My co-founder Monica Olivera at the education and literacy-focused organization Latinas for Latino Lit (L4LL) introduced me to Brown's books. I quickly fell head over heels because Brown writes a story that is as well written as it is vibrantly illustrated, one that appeals to an adult. This is important because as a children's literature author, I am not Brown's target audience. Yet the fact that I've been drawn to her writing tells me that she respects her child readers enough to write clearly for them, while engaging older readers. The tricky balance she has struck is a testament to the mastery of her craft which has been recognized with awards and recognitions, including being invited to the Library of Congress' National Book Fair.
Brown has become one of my favorites who I spotlight when L4LL appears in the media such as Univision's top-rated national morning show Despierta América. I love checking out her books from the library and bringing them onto the set to share with a national audience. I was especially excited to be paired up with her for this year's Latinas for Latino Lit (L4LL) Día Blog Hop celebrating the literacy-focused event El día de los niños, el día de los libros on April 30th.
Enjoy Brown's thoughtful, soulful answers to the questions I posed which aim to explore the theme of immersion in her life and work!
Note: Minor editing for style.
Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D: You have a Ph.D. and teach literature to college students. Why write children’s books and not, for example, literary criticism or novels for adults?
Monica Brown: I’ve written a great deal of literary criticism, including my scholarly book, Gang Nation: Delinquent Citizens in Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Chicana Narratives, and for over a decade I wrote and taught about Latino/a Literature. Then I decided to create it—Latino/a literature for children. This was inspired first and foremost when I became a mother and look and saw what was out there, or rather, what wasn’t in terms of children’s literature. Our stories were not being told, the beauty and complexity of our mestizaje and “mixed” race families weren’t being told, and there weren’t enough stories focusing on fierce, funny, brave girls, in my opinion. My first professional writing job, just out of college, was as a journalist, then I went to graduate school and became a scholar and literary critic, become a children’s author was the next step in my evolution as a thinker, a writer, and someone who believes down to my bones that words matter, stories matter.
I feel called to write for children, perhaps because it is a hopeful enterprise—their minds are so open and creative and free. As they learn more of the world through family, school, news, etc. I want to give them stories that will inspire and instill pride, and joy, and fun and adventure.
VH: Why make larger-than-life figures such as soccer legend Pelé, civil rights icons Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, musical great Tito Puente, and Nobel literature laureates Pablo Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez the main characters of your children’s picture-books?
MB: I write both non-fiction biographies for children, and books with fictional characters. My biographies allow me to share the lives of my political heroes, like Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, my literary inspirations, like Pablo Neruda and Gabriel García Marquez, and those who lived extraordinary lives. I also wanted to highlight the rich contributions of people of the Américas to all aspects of our culture here in the United States.
VH: Some of your characters’ names--Marisol McDonald or Lola Levine--reveal a dual view of identity, in this case both Latino and American. Is this the way you see yourself? What does this say about today’s America?
MB: It’s so interesting, because one of the most important, messages, if you will is that people who have multi-ethnic, multiracial backgrounds, are NOT fractions. We are not half this and half that. We are whole and complex and our children should not be subject to comments like “You don’t look . . . .” or “What are you?” I don’t see it as a duality of identity in that I don’t see my identity and that of my children in terms of binary oppositions. I was raised and baptized Catholic, for example, but am also Jewish by heritage and choice. My mother is South American and my father is North American. In my children’s books, like my Marisol McDonald picture book series and my forthcoming Lola Levine chapter book series, I want my characters to exist in a world that doesn’t oppress with labels and definitions that rely on the colonizer's language. My characters, my children, myself—to quote Walt Whitman, we “contain multitudes.”
VH: L4LL celebrated when you, along with illustrator Rafael López, were chosen to present at the Library of Congress’ 2013 National Book Festival. Do you believe that U.S. Latino children’s literature has “arrived” in the world of mainstream publishing and readers?
MB: We haven’t fully “arrived,” in one sense of the word, not when our numbers are still so small. Are there talented, successful Latino/a writers and illustrators publishing amazing work? Yes! Absolutely. Are we receiving recognition for that work? Yes, and it’s wonderful. I’ve been lucky to work with publishers like Lee and Low and Little Brown & Co who have opened doors and made a difference. But if you look only at numbers, comparing for example, the numbers of children’s books published by Latino/as this year compared to last, they will still be very small, and not representative of the growing population. On a more positive note, I do think our books are speaking to more mainstream audiences in that our subject matter, like our lives, are infinitely broad.
VH: What support and recognition is needed for our authors and illustrators to succeed and become household names?
MB: Well, efforts like Latinas for Latino Lit (L4LL) and websites like yours are doing an amazing job! You are literacy activists and you help put our books in the hands of children, so thank you!!
VH: This year’s Día Blog hop theme is immersion. Can you share with our readers what role immersion has in your life and work?
MB:Well, my life has been immersed in words, in literature. As a professor teaching U.S. Latino/a literature, it’s been an immersion in the history, writing and cultural production of Chicano/a, Puerto Rican, Peruvian-American, Cuban-American and Dominican-American writers, and the teaching of writing, critical thinking and cultural studies to my students.
As a creative writer immersed in the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, the activism and inspiration of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, the artistry of Celia Cruz, I have been able to transform and translate those lives into stories for children. And in immersing myself in my past and my children’s present, I believe that I’ve been able to create two amazing characters, Marisol McDonald and Lola Levine, which I hope have and will touch the lives of children and give them courage to be fully themselves.
Click here for the L4LL 2015 Día blog hop schedule featuring 13 award-winning U.S. Hispanic authors and illustrators on leading Latina blogs. We hope that you will follow along this week and share with your families and friends!