Kansas City writer Angela Cervantes won an International Latino Book Award in 2014 for her first book, Gaby, Lost and Found. Published by Scholastic Press, the book helped establish Cervantes, originally a poet and short-story writer, as an author of middle-grade fiction (for audiences between the ages of 8-12). Cervantes spoke with KCUR on the release of her new book, Allie, First At Last.
Here are highlights from the interview.
On visiting schools to speak to her readers:
“I love the school visits. I have been faced with 400 third-graders, fourth- graders and fifth-graders in one auditorium. And (it's so gratifying) to hear them all laugh at the right times when they’re supposed to laugh, and groan where they’re supposed to groan. And they have such good questions. These kids are sharp and they love books.”
On the publishing industry's efforts to increase diversity, which has been a topic of much discussion in the last couple of years:
“I think it’s getting better. I do feel like the book industry is taking the action needed for diversity a lot quicker than, say, the movie industry. Just in just the past few years, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award, and Kwame Alexander's The Crossover won the Newbery Medal. And this year, Matt de la Pena's Last Stop on Market Street won the Newbery Medal. That means we’re being recognized. I’m also hearing, on the publishing side, that editors are really making the call out for more Asian, African-American, Hispanic, and Latino authors to come forward with manuscripts, and I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”
On Gaby, Lost And Found, which also won awards, and why readers responded so positively:
“Gaby is a risk-taking young woman. She’s a child of an immigrant from Honduras, and her mom’s job place has been raided, and her mom has been deported during the day while Gaby is at school, which is very common – kids come home and their parents simply are simply not there. So Gaby’s going through, obviously, a very rough time. But her school gets her involved in volunteer project at an animal shelter, and Gaby immediately gets very engaged in all the dogs and cats that reside in this shelter, she identifies with them as animals that have also sort of been abandoned, and so she decides she’s going to write their stories as a way to compel people to come adopt them. Through this experiences she finds her voice, she becomes empowered, she deals with what’s going on in her life in a more positive way.
"I think it has resonated with kids because, one, kids love dogs and cats. But I think it’s also resonated because kids are very concerned about Gaby. There’s about five questions I always get at school visits, and one of them is: Why did you end it so sad? Why couldn’t you have ended it with her mom coming back home? I always tell the kids, 'I also hope you see it as hopeful, and I left it open so you can discuss it with your teachers: Can Gaby prevail? Can she go on?'”
On her new book, Allie, First At Last, whose main character, a 10-year-old girl, is a annoying in her obsession to win trophies:
“Allie was an interesting character for me to write. She came out of my own interest in people who are first at things. You have Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. You have Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mt. Everest, you have the wonderful Barack Obama, first African-American president. That is certainly what motivates Allie, because she is around all these highly ambitious members of her family.
"But there’s also this kid who’s her friend, Victor Garcia, who’s just trying to be first in his family to graduate high from school, the first in his family to go to college. Her motivations are so different: 'I just want to win, win, win at any cost.' How she gets out of that, as an author I have to make things very hard on her, in hopes that she’ll come out a bigger, better person.”
On her next book:
“Everywhere I go when I talk to kids, I say what kind of book should I write next? And they always yell back, ‘Mystery!’ They love mysteries, so I thought, I’m going to give the kids what they want. I’m going to try my hand at a mystery.”
On whether Gaby's mother ever returns:
"I leave that up to the readership. That’s a great mystery though."
Angela Cervantes reads and signs copies of Allie, First At Last from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 31, at Barnes & Noble, 4751 West 117th St., Leawood, Kansas, 66211, 913-491-4535.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.