A Conversation with Alma Flor Ada

For our final post of this amazing year, we’re pleased to introduce you to a new series here on Latinas for Latino Lit. Each month we’ll be featuring a different Latino author and/or illustrator and talking about some of the issues that affect our community. We’re so happy to kick off this great series with the award-winning author, Alma Flor Ada.

Alma Flor may be the most recognized Latina author of children’s literature here in the United States. Together with her dear friend, F. Isabel Campoy, she has written everything from poetry to folklore and shared stories from throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Her beautifully written bilingual books are coveted by educators and parents across the country.

A marvelous and much sought-after speaker, Alma Flor is a Pro­fes­sor Emerita at the Uni­ver­sity of San Fran­cisco who has devoted her life to advo­cacy for peace by pro­mot­ing a ped­a­gogy ori­ented to per­sonal real­iza­tion and social jus­tice. She is also a for­mer Rad­cliffe Scholar at Har­vard Univer­sity and Ful­bright Research Scholar.

Alma Flor was kind enough to accept a few questions from L4LL, and we hope you enjoy reading her answers as much as we did…

L4LL: You are such a prolific writer, having published countless books in English and Spanish for children. Where do you go to find inspiration for your stories?

AFA: Inspiration seems to be all around us and inside us, if we only stop to rest and open the door to imagination. In my case many of my books have been born from my own childhood memories, not only the ones that are specifically memoirs like Under the Royal Palms and Where the Flame Trees Bloom but others like the recent Love, Amalia, which draws a great deal from my own relationship with my grandmother.

Both my grandparents were journalists, so it is not strange I would be moved to write Extra! Extra! and letters were a great part of my growing up experiences since we had family in various places. And I thoroughly enjoyed writing letters, thus Dear Peter Rabbit; Yours Truly, Goldilocks and With Love, Little Red Hen.

My children’s childhood was also a fountain of inspiration. It Wasn’t Me/No fui yo, I Don’t Want to Melt/No quiero derretirme, The Kite/El papalote and A Rose With Wings/Rosa alada relate directly to moments when they were growing up.

Some stories have been motivated by a word or phrase. I wrote The Malachite Palace because I love the sound of the phrase “un kiosco de malaquita” in Rubén Darío’s A Margarita and La hamaca de la vaca o Un amigo más was born directly from having thought the phrase “hamaca de la vaca.” I just couldn’t let go of it and had to create a story around it!

L4LL: You and Isabel Campoy have repeatedly written books that pull from different Hispanic cultures and traditions. Why have you chosen to do this? Is diversity so important?

AFA: Our culture is very rich. It co-exists in 20 countries with numerous indigenous populations of various origins. Our language is the fourth most spoken in the World, after Chinese, Hindi and English, but it is after English the most universally spread. Such territorial expansion can only result in great diversity. Our children should be aware that this diversity is a richness we can enjoy, celebrating our regional uniqueness and the strength of our unity.

L4LL: Why do you think it is important for Latino children and their families to read these books?

AFA: The more we know about our culture the more of value we will find in it. No culture is perfect and ours, like all other, is composed of positive and negative trends. Unfortunately, the mass media tends to highlight the negative –crime, drugs, scandal.

We need our children to grow up knowing they need not replicate anyone’s mistakes, not be seduced by false promises, but that they can embrace the positive aspects of our culture –love of family, friendship, creativity, hard work, and endurance.

They should find strength in our roots and inspiration in those who have contributed with their determination and effort.

L4LL: How can we help Latino children escape the discouraging statistics and become proficient readers by 4th grade?

AFA: Reading at home should be an essential aspect of childrearing. Parents and children who devote a few minutes every day to reading will not only strengthen the children’s reading abilities but will find topics to talk about.

Strong literacy is linked to strong vocabulary. And parents and caretakers should know that it is their responsibility to enrich the children’s vocabulary.

Talk to your children, as much as possible: tell them stories of when you were growing up, point out the differences, share with them experiences of your parents and grandparents, explain to them what you do each day, the decisions you have to make, the things that you observe and interest you.

And ask them to tell you what they do during the day, what they learn in class, who they play with at recess.

You will be building trust and bonding which will be very useful in the future to guide and protect your children. You will also be giving them the gift of words.

When reading the child needs to imagine the reality.

In the past children acquired vocabulary through conversation and through listening to the radio. The vocabulary present in film and TV is restricted, because the images substitute the words.

The reading proficiency children need require daily conversation and daily reading.

Make visits to the library a weekly treat. Establish a library at home with books you borrow from the public library and books you give as gifts.

L4LL: Why do you think large publishing companies and booksellers fail to invest and develop their sections devoted to Latino children’s literature?

AFA: We need to look at this in context. A large section of society still looks at Latinos as second class citizens. The prejudice that has been experienced by all immigrants in the past is confounded in this case with a certain amount of guilt arising from historical wrongs. The publishing industry and booksellers are no exception.

Publishers of children’s literature have a greater awareness of the messages sent by books, being constantly reminded by librarians and teachers of their social responsibility. Yet, it is difficult to make substantive changes, unless there is a clear determination to do so.

There are very few Latinos in the publishing industry. It is essential that publishers advertise and offer opportunities for some of our qualified youth to become editors. It would be very beneficial if some of our young people would be encouraged to get an education as writers.

Publishers could make an effort to foster Latino authors through specific awards, manuscripts requests, and sponsoring their participation in workshops or courses to hone their abilities as potential authors.

L4LL: Some argue that Latino literature should not be separated and put in their own section, but that books by Latino authors about Latinos should be mixed in with the mainstream books. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages? Yay or nay?

AFA: For me this is a case of both. Yes, Latino literature should become part of the mainstream literature, and our authors recognized and read along with all others. Yet, probably most would get lost on the mass. When we identify a Latino literature, offer special conferences and awards for Latino authors and place their books is special sections of book stores and book sellers catalogues, we bring a heightened awareness of their presence.

Teachers and Latino parents become more aware of the existence of books by Latino authors when they are highlighted.

L4LL: What are your favorite children’s books for the holidays?

AFA: Personally Isabel Campoy and I have written Merry Navidad to present the traditional Christmas story though villancicos, organized in sections to go from the journey to Bethlehem to the visit of the Three Kings. The English version that retains the poetic nature of the original were created by my daughter Rosa Zubizarreta. Vivi Escrivá created beautiful renditions of the different moments. It brings us much joy because it was a coordinated effort whose final result was all we had dreamt.

Years ago I wrote La jaula dorada / The Golden Cage a story inspired in my son’s Miguel love for birds and for his grandmother and No quiero derretirme / I Don’t Want to Melt which is a winter story inspired in an anecdote of my son Gabriel. He was very young when we left Detroit to visit my mother in Florida and he asked the snowman he and his siblings had built, “Please, do not melt.” His innocence moved me so much I felt the need to write a book, which is really about the meaning of life.

Recently Isabel Campoy and I wrote three books for the series Cuentos para celebrar/Stories to Celebrate: one dedicated to Christmas and the Three Kings Day, one dedicated to Hanukkah and one to Kwanzaa. As in all books in that series there is a story related to the festivity and a non-fiction section with photographs explaining the meaning and history of the celebration.

Because Christmas has been a very important moment in my life there are many references to it in many of my books.

But essentially a good book is a perfect gift and I hope parents will consider books as important gifts to give their children not only during the holidays but along the year. And the greatest beauty is that they need not buy them: the public library is full of them!

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Thank you so much to Alma Flor Ada for talking with us and ending our year on such a meaningful note. Be sure to visit her website, AlmaFlorAda.com, to learn more about her many wonderful publications and find additional resources.

Wishing you all a very happy holiday season and a bright and shining new year!

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