Fresh Voices Q&A

Fresh Voices: A Q&A with Author Andrea Beatriz Arango

Welcome to the Fresh Voices series! We are excited to share a special Q&A with author Andrea Beatriz Arango about their new middle-grade novel, IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL.

The Fresh Voices series is brought to you in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.

What inspired you to write IVELIZ EXPLAINS IT ALL? 

That’s a hard one to answer! I’ve always been interested in exploring mental health and family dynamics in my writing, but I’d never tried to write middle grade before, and certainly not in verse. I think it came down to the timing of the world, really. We had just been sent home unexpectedly, schools closed for the indefinite future, and I suddenly found myself a middle school ESOL teacher (of newcomers!) far away from students who had suddenly been stripped of the place that provided them all of their communication and mental health support. I definitely used writing as a bit of an escape.

What was the most difficult part about writing the book? What part was the easiest?   

The easiest part was Iveliz’s voice. It came so naturally – like she had been waiting for me to tell her story just so she could burst out into the page. The hardest part was writing the emotional components of the book. If a reader has cried reading a particular scene, chances are I also cried while writing it.

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

I love intergenerational stories because I grew up in a place and culture that really values family duty and relationships. My maternal grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s, and while I still lived in Puerto Rico, I helped with her care. Alzheimer’s is very difficult both for the person living through it and the people living next to it, and a lot of that emotion came from my family’s experiences.

What do you want kids to take away from this story?   

I hope the book helps kids strip away a little bit of that shame associated with going to therapy or being on medication. There is nothing wrong with needing or wanting either of those, and I think that needs to be spoken about more in classroom settings.

What are you currently reading?

I read a LOT (check out my bookstagram if you want constant book recs), but at this moment I am reading The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes (YA), Adrift by Tanya Guerrero (MG), and The Romance Recipe by Ruby Barrett (Adult Romance).

Fresh Voices: Q&A with Author Glenda Armand and illustrator Steffi Walthall

Welcome to Fresh Voices! We are excited to share a special Q&A with author Glenda Armand and illustrator Steffi Walthall about their new picture book, BLACK-EYED PEAS AND HOGHEAD CHEESE!

The Fresh Voices series is brought to you in coordination with the RHCB DEI Book Club Committee.

What inspired you to write Black-Eyed Peas and Hoghead Cheese?

Glenda Armand: Even though this story is very personal to me, I had no plans to write it. My agent, Karen Grencik, informed me that an editor, Sonali Fry, was looking for someone to write a picture book about soul food. Would I be interested?

I did not jump at the chance because I am not a foodie. However, my family is from Louisiana and I grew up eating delicious Creole cooking. With that experience and with picture books being in my wheelhouse, I thought I would give it a try.

It turned out to be an unexpectedly rewarding experience. I learned many things about the history of African Americans and of my own family. I learned how deep my family’s roots are in Louisiana. I gained a deeper understanding of how intricately the story of African Americans is entwined with the history of the United States. I grew to appreciate the extent to which what we eat makes us who we are.

Steffi Walthall: The story was absolutely beautiful and so joyful! I work on a lot of historical nonfiction and even though this book is based around facts during that time period, I had an opportunity to be playful and fun with the character designs and adding a little bit of magic to the pages.

What was the most difficult part about writing the book? What part was the easiest?

Armand: The hardest part of writing the book was deciding what to leave out. There is just so much there! I’d uncover one bit of information and that would lead to another and another. I had to remind myself that this is a picture book and you only have room for so many words!

The most satisfying part, was weaving together the different threads of the story, the past and the present, the food and the feelings.

Walthall: I think the most difficult part for me was trying to best represent the vision of the author. Every book is different and I always want to do justice to the characters and the stories. We had to do some pretty creative thinking on how we would handle the historical scenes for the sake of content and time but I really love how they came out. The easiest part was adding in the final details and adding character to the house. I referenced things from my grandparents’ home like pots and pans and cabinets and I also looked at photos from my family.

What character or element of the story do you identify with the most and why?

Armand: I am Frances! Except that she has more curiosity about the process of cooking than I had when I was her age. Now I wish I had spent more time in the kitchen as Mom created the meals I grew up eating. Recipes are great, but there’s really nothing like learning from the cook herself.

While my four sisters learned at Mom’s side, I was somewhere curled up with a book or training our family’s dog, Mr. Boy, how to shake hands. I know that my mom would be tickled that, of her five daughters, I am the one who wrote a “cookbook.” However, I know that she approves because, even though the wonderful illustrator never met her, Steffi Walthall’s depiction of Grandma in Black-Eyed Peas looks remarkably like my mother. She is smiling down on us.

Walthall: The familial bonds are what resonated most with me. When I read the manuscript I was instantly reminded of my grandparents and great aunts and uncles and how we love on each other when we’re together. The celebration at the end reminded me of Kwanzaa with my extended family!

What do you want kids today to take away from this story?

Armand: I would like young readers to take away from this story the same lessons I learned when writing it.

I would ask them to learn from their elders. Take advantage of family get-togethers to “interview” family members. What was their childhood like? What did they dream of?

I often told my students, “Once you learn to read, you read to learn.” So read and learn! Learn the history of our country, the good and the bad. Learn about your own ethnic group and the role it played in that history. Knowing these things will give you a sense of belonging, purpose, and pride. And learn how to cook!

Walthall: I hope that the kids who read this story are motivated to look into their personal histories and do research on their family traditions, regardless of background. I also hope readers are encouraged to look into some of the practices talked about in the book as well.

What are you currently reading?

Armand: When it comes to books for pleasure, I listen to them. When I read a physical book, it tends to be spiritual in nature, or for research. I like to have actual copies of books that I use for research because, once I’ve written in the margins, highlighted and decorated them with Post-it notes, I return to them again and again.

As far as books I’ve recently listened to, usually while gardening, they would be hard to fit into one category. Yesterday, I finished Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet, before that, I listened to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, after having spent about a month weeding with David Copperfield. Prior to the Dickens’ classic, I enjoyed an intriguing non-fiction book called A Short History of the World According to Sheep. Now I am listening toDragons in a Bag.

As a middle and high school teacher and librarian, I was always on the lookout for books that would hook boys on reading. Even though I’m retired now, I am still on that search, which shows up in my reading choices. When I am choosing just for me, I lean towards biographies and historical fiction.

Walthall: So a lot of times, because of my schedule, I don’t have a chance to “read” as much as listen to audiobooks and podcasts. I just finished listening to Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due and I’m adding Black Girls Must Die Exhausted by Jayne Allen, The Good House by Tananarive Due, and The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones to my rotation!

Fresh Voices: Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture a unique aspect of the human experience. Enjoy this Q&A with Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby about their anthology, This Is Our Rainbow!

1. What gave you the idea to create this anthology? How did you go about choosing which contributors you wanted to participate?

Nicole and Katherine: Dahlia Adler, another queer author who runs LGBTQreads.com and has put together a bunch of anthologies herself, had tweeted something like, someone should be putting a queer MG anthology together if they’re not already. Nicole said, I would love to, but I am absolutely not equipped to do this, I have no idea how. And that was when Dahlia said, look, Katherine Locke has done it before, and they’re great, so I’m going to pair you two up. We talked and realized that we had similar visions for the project, so we decided to go for it. 

Choosing the contributors was really a matter of, okay, how many voices can we include in this anthology? How many different identities could we have stories for? And we started making lists of the authors who always pop into my head when I think about queer kid lit. At the end of the day, it was more about wanting to appeal to as many different types of readers as possible, in addition to reaching as much representation as possible, than it was just reaching out to our friends or anything like that.

2. What was the most difficult part about writing your short story for the anthology? What part was the easiest?

Nicole: My answer for both “most difficult” and “easiest” is actually the same exact answer: Keeping it short! This was my first time writing a short story for a project. On the one hand, it was so nice to be able to really hone in and focus on a really simple emotional thread and run with it. On the other hand, I wanted to make sure I was able to do the character and story justice, just as much as I did having only around 5,000 words as I do when I have 50,000 words to play with. I was also able to take my pitch of “What if the song Stacy’s Mom was about a queer girl?” and use it. It’s a little too simplistic for a full length novel, but was perfect for this, so I was excited to finally have the chance to use it.

Katherine: This was my first time writing something fully secondary world fantasy for publication, I think, and so stuffing enough world building into a limited amount of words was a challenge! But I think the easiest part was the representation. Writing Jupiter, my little pirate protagonist, as nonbinary felt so right that I’ve never questioned or wondered about writing them in any other way. I loved writing a world where their identity isn’t questioned or a problem, where their gender identity is accepted by their family, where their sister is queer and married and normalized. Pirates already buck the system in so many ways, it was fun to think about them bucking the cisheteronormativity that might exist on land.

3. Aside from your short story, is there another short story that you identify with the most, and why?

Nicole: I’m going to cheat and name two stories: “The Makeover” by Shing Yin Khor, because I constantly struggle with how I want to dress and present myself. Being quarantined during the pandemic actually helped me let go of some hang ups I had about appearances and start allowing myself to dress and look how I actually wanted. Having a group of friends to help support you finding your own personal style, whatever that may be, is such a wonderful concept.

The other story is “Menudo Fan Club” by Aida Salazar. I cannot even tell you how many times growing up—and into adult hood—I made up a male celebrity crush on the spot just so that things wouldn’t get awkward and I wouldn’t have to try and explain why I didn’t actually like any of the male celebrities that way.

Katherine: I also really loved Shing Yin Khor’s “The Makeover.” It’s the one that made me cry when I read it because I felt so seen. But I also really love Marieke Nijkamp’s “Splinter and Ash.” As someone who grew up on Tamora Pierce and absolutely adored the Tortall books, I am hungry for stories that feel like Tortall, but with gender and sexuality and disability representation that feels authentic and daring.

4. What do you want young readers today to take away from this anthology?

Nicole and Katherine: We really just want them to know that they’re not alone. And, ultimately, this is an anthology full of queer joy, and we want all of our readers to be able to experience that joy themselves. Even if they are not at that point in their own lives, we want them to see the possibilities. Possibilities are incredibly powerful.

5. What are you currently reading?

Nicole: I am currently reading advanced copies of two really special books: The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill (out March 8, 2022) and In the Key of Us by one of our fabulous contributors, Mariama Lockington (out April 26, 2022).

Katherine: I’m currently jealous of Nicole’s early copies! I am reading Little Thieves by Margaret Owens and The Other Talk by Brendan Kiely, both out now.

Q&A with Louisa Onomé

Like Home

Like Home By Louisa Onomé

Fans of Netflix's On My Block and readers of Elizabeth Acevedo and Angie Thomas will love this debut novel about a girl whose life is turned upside down after one local act of vandalism throws both her relationships and neighborhood into turmoil.

Chinelo, or Nelo as her best friend Kate calls her, is all about her neighborhood Ginger East. She loves its chill vibe, ride-or-die sense of community, and the memories she has growing up there with her friends. Ginger East isn't what it used to be though. After a deadly incident at the local arcade, most of her friends' families moved away. Kate, whose family owns the local corner store, is still there and as long as that stays constant, Nelo's good.

When Kate's parent's store is vandalized and the vandal still at large, Nelo is shaken to her core. And then the police and the media get involved and more of the outside world descends upon Ginger East with promises to "fix the neighborhood." Suddenly, Nelo finds herself in the middle of a drama unfolding on a national scale.

Worse yet, Kate is acting strange. She's pushing Nelo away at the exact moment they need each other most. Now Nelo's entire world is morphing into something she hates and she must figure out how to get things back on track or risk losing everything--and everyone--she loves.

What inspired Chinelo’s character and her neighborhood, Ginger East?

I’m not sure if Chinelo’s character was inspired by any one thing in particular. I think she came into my head partially formed, and the rest of her was filled out with the idea of who I thought I was at sixteen. Ginger East is also a bit of a reimagining of the neighborhood I grew up in, although way more commercial. The way I describe the street, the park, the bus stop at the top of the hill–all of it is right from my memory of the place I grew up in. It was pretty cool to include those details and see how they fit in with my idea of Ginger East.

What was the most difficult part about writing LIKE HOME? What part was the easiest?

The most difficult part was writing the eventual deterioration of Nelo and Kate’s friendship. Maybe deterioration isn’t the best way to describe it, but the subtle way their interactions change was hard for me to tackle at first because writing a friendship breakup is never an easy thing. On the flip side, I really liked writing the scenes with Nelo and Rafa because I love writing banter. It’s easily my favorite thing!

What character do you identify with the most and why?

In a small way, I identify with all of them, but maybe Bo and Nelo the most. Parts of Nelo are a (bolder) version of myself, and Bo is that classic “I was kinda nerdy and now I dress better” story that I am embarrassed to say I relate to! Although, just like Bo, I never really grew out of being a nerd.

If you could put any character from another book into this story, who would it be and why?

My first thought would be a character like Penny from Mary HK Choi’s Emergency Contact. To me, she’s someone who would’ve wanted to escape Ginger East the second she could, and I feel that would’ve put her in direct opposition with someone like Nelo who absolutely loves Ginger East. It would’ve been an interesting dynamic.

What do you want teens today to take away from this story?

I’d love for teens who aren’t familiar with the world of Ginger East, and neighborhoods like it, to recognize the humanity in the people who live there. I think it’s important that we come to an understanding of what it’s like to grow up in neighborhoods like these, primarily immigrant neighborhoods, and see the good in them as well.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished reading Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age and Jason June’s Jay’s Gay Agenda, and I’m waiting impatiently for my copy of Courtney Summers’ The Project to arrive!

Louisa Onome

Louisa Onome

Louisa Onomé holds a BA in professional writing from York University and lives in Toronto. Her debut novel is Like Home. To learn more about Louisa and her books visit louisaonome.com or follow @louisaonome_ on Twitter and @louisaonome on Instagram.

Fresh Voices Series

Welcome to Fresh Voices! In this new series, we are excited to share with you authors whose books capture the human experience.

Random House Teachers and Librarians