When you were my age, did you like to read? Yes, I LOVED to read. I would sometimes get made fun of because I always had my nose in a book, but I didn’t care. One of my favorite things to do used to be to go to my local library and take out as many books as I could carry. I didn’t always get through them all, but I had fun trying!
What was your favorite story? I had a few favorites. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, and of course the Nancy Drew books. I loved Dr. Seuss, and I was into reading poetry and short stories–especially if they were scary.
How do you get your ideas? All kinds of ways. Sometimes from reading newspapers or magazines, or from conversations with friends or family… Sometimes reading a book or watching a movie will give me an idea, or often I’ll pull from something that actually happened to me or someone I know.
For example, I wrote a book called Your Life, But Better in which the main character is asked to be a model in a runway show. Well, as a kid, I lived next door to a girl whose aunt was a clothing designer, and she really did ask me to model in her show one year. In my book Maya & Miguel: My Twin Brother/My Twin Sister, Maya is trying to win her mother a trip to Hawaii for her birthday by entering an essay contest. When I started writing that book, I was in Hawaii, and in fourth grade I did win a trip by entering an essay contest, so I just combined those two things.
For Just Princesses, it helped to bounce ideas off my mom. I wanted to write a story where the princess gets to be the hero. Since she is so young, I thought that was more likely to happen if her parents weren’t there to take charge. Then I thought, what if none of the grown-ups were there? That would mean she has to step up and rescue the adults. What would that be like for a princess who’s used to playing the typical princess role and being taken care of?
Why do you write graphic novels for kids? This is really two questions: why do I write for kids, and why did I write a graphic novel for kids.
I never thought I’d write for children, actually. When I was in college studying creative writing, the focus was on writing for adults. But then I got a job in book publishing and met my friend Stephanie Elliott. She was an editor at a company that produced kid’s books, and she ended up giving me my first chance to write a book in a series she was working on. Even though that project didn’t work out, it gave me a taste for writing for younger readers. It was fun, and inside I still feel like a kid most of the time anyway, so for me it was a good fit. Plus, back then my niece and nephew were still little and I loved the idea of writing books they would enjoy reading.
So I started looking for more opportunities to write for kids, and eventually I was hired to write the Maya & Miguel books. Since then I’ve really fallen in love with writing kid’s books. It lets me see the world with fresh eyes, explore my imagination, and hopefully influence kids in a positive way. Plus, I get to do school visits and participate in book festivals and events, which is always fun. I love getting to meet the kids who read my books and hearing what they think.
As for graphic novels, I never thought I would write those either. But a friend of mine from high school was working with a comic book company that wanted to start a line of graphic novels for kids. He recommended me to them. I pitched them an idea that they liked, and Just Princesses was born.
I had never written a graphic novel before, so it took me a while to get used to it. I had to learn to let the art do most of the talking and to choose scenes that would move the story along and be interesting for the illustrator to draw. It was harder than I thought it would be. You can probably tell just from this interview that I talk too much! Ha ha… So doing more with fewer words was tough. But thankfully, I was working with the awesome team at Silver Dragon Books (Jennifer Bermel, Dave Franchini, and Jessica Rossana), as well as the very talented illustrator, Manuel Preitano, and the wonderful letterer Matt Krotzer. They all helped me through the process and in the end, the story came alive on the page exactly the way I had pictured it in my head, which was so cool. Since then I’ve gotten to try my hand at writing comic books for Zenescope, and I hope I get to write more graphic novels in the future.
Do you have a favorite among the books you have written/illustrated? Maya & Miguel: My Twin Sister/My Twin Brother remains my favorite because it was the first book I had published. It was always my dream to walk into a bookstore and see a book with my name on it. My Twin Sister/My Twin Brother made that dream come true. But I probably had the most fun writing Just Princesses.
Do you think diversity in books is important for kids and why? Diversity in books is so important! When I was a kid, very few of the books I read featured anyone who looked like me–a curly-haired, brown-eyed, brown-skinned Latina. It made me think that someone like me couldn’t be the main character or hero in a story. You start to feel invisible and unimportant. I’m not sure I could put my finger on that when I was younger, though. I just thought that’s the way it was and always would be. It wasn’t until later in high school and college that I read books like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and started to see that I was welcome too. This is part of why I loved writing Maya & Miguel–which starred two kids who were of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage. My family is Puerto Rican, so it felt good to represent them in this way. Later, I wrote the Hunters of Chaos series, in which the four main characters are Mayan, Chinese, Native American, and Egyptian.
We’re all in this world together, and we each have unique experiences and stories to share. Art should reflect that, and every kid should know that they have value. The more we read and learn about one another, the closer we get to real unity and understanding. Seems to me that is more important now than ever.
I once got an email from a mom, thanking me for writing the Maya & Miguel books because one of the characters, Andy, was born with one arm–just like her daughter. She told me that when her daughter saw that there was a character like her, who was able to do all the things the other kids did, she was excited and happy. The people who created the characters for the show deserve the credit, which I told her, but for me it proved how much every kid longs to see themselves on the page, just as they like walking in someone else’s shoes sometimes.
With movements like We Need Diverse Books, I see the change happening. My hope is that more people who have been left out will get to write, edit, and publish these stories. Then we all win.
What author do you really like right now? I always recommend my friend Tracey Baptiste and her book, The Jumbies. The sequel, Rise of the Jumbies, is coming out in September and I can’t wait to read it! When I got the chance to write a graphic novel, I started reading them to get a feel for how it’s done. I came across Dana Simpson’s Unicorn books, starting with Phoebe and Her Unicorn, which is so funny, and the Max Crumbly books by Rachel Renée Russell. I love it when a book makes me laugh. But really, I am reading all the time, so this list could go on and on.
What advice do you have for a kid who wants to be an author?
Here are a few of my go-to tips:
* To be an author, you have to start by being a big reader! Read as much as you can, and read lots of different kinds of books. That’s a good way to learn from people who are already doing it, and to figure out what kind of writer you want to be.
* I recommend keeping a diary. Not only is it great writing practice, but it will help you remember details that you can use in your writing later on. (I’ve kept one since I was 13, but I wish I’d started sooner.)
* Work on growing your vocabulary and grammar. Words are your tools as a writer, and you want as many tools as you can get.
* Show your work to other people. I know that can be scary, but that’s part of being an author and you have to be a little bit brave. Even negative comments can be good if they make you work harder. There’s always room to learn and grow.
* Don’t be afraid to fail. Most writers will tell you that their first drafts are kind of terrible. (Well, mine are, anyway.) But it’s so much easier to edit something you’ve written and make it better than it is to face a blank page. Get something down on paper, then go back and fix it. (*Side note: It helps to read it out loud.)
* Finally, write! Do it as often as you can, and don’t just wait until you’re inspired either. Sometimes if you start writing, inspiration will come. In the meantime, don’t get discouraged. Keep at it and eventually you will have created something you’re proud of, something no one else could create but you.