Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An Interview With Children's Book Author Monica Brown

René Colato Lainez

I love My Name is Celia and My Name is Gabriela. You are doing an incredible contribution to children’s literature with your Latino biographies picture books. What is your research process for writing these biographies?

I try to be a meticulous researcher and honor the historical record, if there is one and it is accurate. As Latino/as, we are sometimes absent from this record and that is partly why I write. Since I was a scholar before I was a children’s writer, research comes naturally, but this is only the beginning of the process. I try to let my subject inspire my writing. Though I wrote a picture-book biography of Celia Cruz, her music--its rhythm, its joyful energy, the lyricism—is present on every page. In my forthcoming biography Pelé, King of Soccer (HarperCollins RAYO, 2009), I tried to capture the physical genius, the grace, and the spirit of his gift, on the page. My collaborator, illustrator Rudy Gutierrez, has done an amazing job!

How do you select your Latino heroes for the book biographies? Who is the next one?

Well, my new biography is on the incredible Gabriel García Márquez (Luna Rising, 2007), a fellow South American. I chose him because he was one of my earliest literary inspirations and because I wanted to introduce children to the concept of magical realism (though I expect they “get it” more easily than most adults!). My Name is Gabito: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez, is not only a biography, but a book about imagination, observation, and unending possibilities of our own creativity.

Let’s talk about your new published bilingual picture book Butterflies on Carmen Street/Mariposas en la calle Carmen. What is this book about?

Butterflies on Carmen Street/Mariposa en la Calle Carmen (Piñata Books, 2007) is my first fictional picture-book for children. In Juliana, I created a confident Mexican American protagonist who lives in a community where all sorts of migrations are part of life’s realities, and where complex identities and multiple communities are celebrated, not denigrated. Juliana is a lively grade schooler who lives is a bustling neighborhood on Carmen Street, where her parents own La Esquina market, a place which sells everything from mango-chile lollipops and pan dulce to Spanish videos. For Juliana, life on Carmen Street is nurturing: her parents and grandfather love her, their store sells what everyone wants and needs, she has a great teacher, and a lively best friend, Isabel. Carmen Street is her community and she knows her place in it. She’s inquisitive and excited about a class butterfly project in which her teacher, Ms. Rodriguez, is going to give every student in the class their own monarch caterpillar. Juliana’s abuelo inspires her further by telling her stories about Agangueo in Michoacán, Mexico, the place of his birth and the monarch capital of the world. Through her grandfather’s story, Juliana learns from Ms. Rodriguez and her grandfather that migration is a natural cycle; the butterflies migrate to survive.

What was your inspiration to write this book?

Frankly, I was disturbed by the anti-immigration rhetoric in my home state of Arizona. As the daughter of a South American mother and a North American father, I suppose I think a little differently about borders. I was raised to consider myself a citizen of the world and I believe that my own daughters, though U.S. citizens, are children of the Americas. The monarch’s migration, with its cyclical pattern between Mexico, Canada, and the United States inspired me to tell a story about migration in a new way.

Have you raised caterpillars?

No, but my children have!

How do you pick up the names for your characters?

For Butterflies on Carmen Street, it was easy—I named the main character, Juliana, after my daughter! Her best friend is Isabel is named after my other daughter. Sometimes, however, I just choose a name because I like the sound and feel of the words on my tongue.

What was the process from manuscript to publish book for this story?

Well, ever since I read Denise Chavez’s Last of the Menu Girls in college, I’ve been interested in Arté Publico Press. When I started writing for children, one of my dreams was to be published by their Piñata children’s imprint. So, when my agent Stefanie Von Borstel brought me the offer for Butterflies on Carmen Street, I jumped at the chance to work with Gabriela Ventura and the folks at Arté Publico!

Are there any secrets during the book making of this book that you would like to share with us?

No secrets, but there was a delightful surprise. While making the final edits to this manuscript, I was invited to do a school visit in Tuscon, Arizona. The librarian and students surprised me with Painted Lady butterflies they had raised from caterpillars. They wanted me to do the honor of setting them free, so I had the pleasure of standing in a garden and watching a butterfly take is first flight from my finger!

What is your next book about?

I several books forthcoming, some fiction and some biography. I am especially excited about my forthcoming book Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, (HarperCollins Rayo, 2010), to be illustrated by Joe Cepeda, which explores a friendship that changed our nation.

Visit Monica at

Monica Brown, Ph.D. is the author of award-winning bilingual books for children, including My Name Is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me llamo Celia: La vida de Celia Cruz (Luna Rising), which was awarded the Américas Award for Children's Literature and a Pura Belpré Honor. Her second picture book, My Name Is Gabriela: The Life of Gabriela Mistral/Me llamo Gabriela: La vida de Gabriela Mistral (Luna Rising) shares the story of the first Latina to win a Nobel Prize. Her other books include the newly released Butterflies on Carmen Street (Arté Publico Press) and My Name Is Gabito: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez/Me llamo Gabito: La vida de Gabriel García Márquez, a Junior Library Guild Premier Selection. Chavela and the Magic Rainforest Chicle (Luna Rising), Pelé, King of Soccer (HarperCollins Rayo), and Side By Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez (HarperCollins Rayo) are forthcoming. Monica's books are inspired by her Peruvian-American heritage and passion to share Latino/a stories with children.

Monica Brown
is an Associate 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 focus, including Gang Nation: Delinquent Citizenship in Puerto Rican and Chicano and Chicana Literature; and numerous scholarly articles/chapters on Latino/a literature and cultural studies. She regularly speaks at conferences and book festivals across the country including the Northern Arizona Book Festival, The Texas Book Festival, The Miami Book Festival and the National and California Associations of Bilingual Educators.

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.

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