October 24, 2010

I WILL SAVE YOU by Matt de la Peña

One of my favorite Latino authors writing for young adults sent out a note a few days ago announcing the release of his latest novel, I Will Save You. Along with the note came what he called a "bizarre" letter that he wrote to potential readers and posted on his blog. Of course, I had to read the letter! Anyone who knows Matt will tell you that it is a good representation of who he is, and what he writes. I don't doubt that this actually happened to him, nor that he would be so thoughtful as to return the frog king to his rightful place in the world. I am sharing the letter with you in the hopes that it fulfills its intent and inspires you to pick up Matt's book. I can't wait to read it myself. If it's anything like his others, I know I won't be sorry. —Adriana

Dear Potential Reader:

This past Sunday I was playing ball in Brooklyn. A bunch of guys like me, older now, still trying to get to the rim or drain jumpers from the corner. At one point the ball rolled out of bounds and two dudes disagreed about who touched it last. Others joined in. Fingers were pointed. Things were said about people’s mothers. I stood back and watched the argument build and thought about the absurdity of our lives. All of us dressed up, dressed down, trying to be somebody, hoping they say good things when we’re not in the room. Like me, standing at half court all stressed out, wondering: Will anybody like my new book, I WILL SAVE YOU? It’s sad. Maybe people don’t like sad books. I like sad books, but I like sad everything – though technically I’m not a sad person.

Eventually the argument died down and we finished the game. But when I got home I was still stressed about my new book. And whether or not it would find a home. And then, for whatever reason, I thought back to a strange time in my life involving a porcelain frog . . .

When I was in grad school I was invited to a professor’s house to hear poet Tess Gallagher speak about her deceased husband, Raymond Carver. I was a first year MFA student in creative writing, and Carver was my favorite, so I was hyped. Before the event a few classmates and I stopped by the liquor store for bottles of wine and one of the girls called out to me from the passenger side window, “Hey Matt, grab a Pinot.”

“A what?” I said, turning around.

“A Pinot.” She frowned. “Pinot Noir?”

I waved her off and cruised in the store all ignorant. Back then there was no Pinot in my world. There was no Merlot or Chardonnay. There was simply red or white. I opted for the cheapest white, the cashier bagged it, I hopped back in the car and we zipped over to my prof’s house over an hour late.

The house was crowded, and when we walked in Mrs. Gallagher was already speaking so I snuck off to the back of the room, near the refreshments table. I listened to her talk for a few minutes, about Carver’s work space and his favorite writing jacket, but my mind quickly drifted. How did I get here? All the way to grad school. This fancy house listening to an actual published writer. I considered these things and drank the wine I brought. Cup after cup of it.

Halfway into the Q&A I realized I’d finished the entire bottle. And I was hammered. And I really had to pee. I put down my cup and made my way to the bathroom.

I locked the door behind me and then stood there, in front of the toilet, taking in the place: framed paintings on the walls, scented candles, fake tulips, potted cacti, and a small porcelain frog wearing a crown. Just what you’d expect to find in some stuffy professor’s bathroom. How predictable. No more than a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a bowl.

After I washed my hands I reached for the porcelain frog and spun it around in my fingers. I put it up to my nose and smelled it. What was with the crown? Why would anybody put this crazy thing on the back of their toilet? Was it some literary symbol I didn’t get? Without really thinking, I slipped the frog in my pocket, dried my hands and rejoined the party.

The rest of the night is a bit of a blur. I remember Mrs. Gallagher made her way around the room, talking to people – even me! I remember the professor offered to show one of the prettier female students his private art collection upstairs. I remember I discovered red wine. And then port. I remember feeling like an imposter as a group of us scanned the ceiling-high bookshelves in the dining room. My classmates commented on every author, their major works, the movement they fit into, the historical context in which they wrote. I was ignorant to almost all the names and said nothing.

Eventually I caught a ride home with my friend Rob who lived in a studio apartment directly underneath a busy flight path. My jeep was parked in front of his place, but I was in no position to drive, so I staggered up his stairs, watched him key open the door, then ducked into his nasty-ass bathroom where I was sick as a dog.

An hour or so later Rob knocked on the door to make sure I was still alive, but I was in no mood for his sympathy. “Go away,” I slurred. “Please. Just leave me alone.” I may have even cursed at him. The details are a bit murky now. I do know that I spent the majority of that night with my arms wrapped around another man’s toilet bowl – something I’m not super proud of.

The next morning I woke up disheveled, hung over and sickened by the thought of any color wine. I grabbed my backpack, flew out the front door, rumbled down the stairs, hopped in my jeep-with-no-top (it had literally blown off on the freeway a few months before) and headed for my apartment across town.

When I walked in the door, I threw the pack to the side and made a b-line for the bathroom. It was there, as I was preparing for a pivotal shower, that I discovered the porcelain frog still tucked deep inside my pocket. I pulled it out, spun it around in my fingers and placed it on the back of my own toilet.

I stared at it a few seconds. I’d never viewed myself as a porcelain frog type of guy, but here I was. I shrugged and stripped and hopped in the shower.

Days passed. Weeks. It was back to the old routine: fiction workshops, afternoon hoop in the gym, hours in the computer lab typing up my sad little stories.

The point is, life continued. The way it does. But every time I stepped foot in my bathroom, there was that regal frog, staring at me, pleading to me.

One morning it finally hit me. The back of my toilet was simply all wrong for this kind of frog. How long was I gonna try and keep up this charade? I scooped it up on my way out of the bathroom, shoved it back in my pocket and grabbed for the keys to my jeep. I drove to Rob’s house.

Before I said a word to him, I slipped into the bathroom and placed the porcelain frog on the back of his toilet. Positioned it dead center and wiped down the dusty space around him.

I pulled Rob into the bathroom and pointed.

We stood there in silence for a few seconds, both of us staring, arms folded.

Finally he spoke: “That the frog from the party?”

“That’s the one.”

He picked the frog up and looked at it. He spun it around in his fingers, then put it back down. “Dude, you hungry?” he said.


We grabbed our stuff and set off for the local Rubio’s.

More time spiraled by. Months this time. (Isn’t it strange how time is forever moving? In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, one of the main characters, Dunbar, explains it like this to his buddy: “‘Do you know how long a year takes when it’s going away? This long.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘A second ago you were stepping into college with your lungs full of fresh air. Today you’re an old man.’”) I wrote a twenty page research paper on Carver for my 700-level lit class. I saved enough money to book a flight to Spain to visit my girlfriend at the time. I had a small mass removed from under my left arm which proved benign. I believe I even learned how to play the game of chess, and whenever I lost I fought the powerful urge to flip over the board in frustration. All this stuff. It happened. But eventually I found myself standing in Rob’s bathroom, once again staring at the porcelain frog with the crown.

I had told myself, again and again, that the back of Rob’s toilet was perfect, it added some class to the joint, but I had it all wrong. Look at the poor thing, I thought. It’s all but naked without the framed paintings and potted plants of its past. Who was I kidding?

I snatched up the frog and shoved it back in my pocket, flew out of Rob’s house without a word, rumbled down his steps and hopped in my jeep-with-no-top.

Minutes later I was tiptoeing up my professor’s long driveway. I crept onto his porch, pulled the frog from my pocket and set it down in front of the expensive-looking welcome mat.

I stood there staring at it for a couple minutes (occasionally checking my back for Neighborhood Watch scouts). That’s when it came to me. This little porcelain frog may not have meant much in the context of most of our lives -- it was small, insignificant, a bit tacky -- but it belonged on the back of this professor’s toilet. That much was clear now. It had ventured out into this great big world, it had seen the insides of other bathrooms, stood guard while utter strangers brushed their teeth and combed their hair – and it was better off for those experiences – but at the end of the day, it belonged here, as the centerpiece of a scholar’s high-class bathroom. The crowning jewel. Who could appreciate it more than the man who had reached for this particular porcelain frog, plucked it off a shelf in some arts and craft store, while it was surrounded by what may have been hundreds, even thousands, of other tacky porcelain animals?

I waved goodbye to the frog, then got the hell out of there before somebody called the cops.

I don’t know. This probably has nothing to do with my new novel. I just felt like revisiting the short time I spent with the porcelain frog I stole from my professor’s house, then gave back.

Or maybe there’s a small connection somewhere in there. Maybe my main character, Kidd, is the frog, and when you (the reader) pick up the book and read Kidd’s story, you’re temporarily putting a roof over his head. Which would be a really nice thing to do because technically Kidd’s homeless. And alone. And sad. He needs all the help he can get.

Or maybe the novel is the frog and bookstores are the bathrooms, and I WILL SAVE YOU only gets a certain amount of shelf time (back-of-the-toilet time) before the store manager ships all unclaimed copies back to the publisher, which is basically like sending somebody to the hole in prison – an interesting connection considering that in the second chapter of I WILL SAVE YOU Kidd wakes up in solitary confinement and spends a good bit of time trying to figure out whether or not he deserves it.

Or maybe the connection is a more personal one. Maybe when you read one of my books you’re coming into my home, drunk on my wine, and sticking a small piece of me in your pocket (so much of these stories are pulled from my past). And maybe when you move me all around – from the table by your bed, to your office desk, to your padded computer bag – you’re giving me a small peek into your world. And maybe after you turn the last page you’ll even lend me to a friend, and I’ll get even farther in my travels. And ultimately you may even come to an epiphany similar to mine, and you’ll sneak up onto my front lawn, months from now, years even, and set that borrowed piece of me back on my welcome mat in the form of a letter, or an email, or a Facebook message, telling me what you think. That’s easily my favorite thing in the world. Just a week ago I received an instant classic from a kid in Oakland. His email read: “Yo! I ain’t a nerd or some shit. But I read all yer books. We Were Here is probably my all time best book. Even though you had that chick Flaca steal all Miguel’s money! LOL! Nah but I just wanted to say thanks for writing yer books. Peace!”

Made my day.

Failed analogy aside, I would be honored if you gave I WILL SAVE YOU a read. It really is kind of a sad book. But it’s hopeful, too. And it’s my heart.

Your friend,

Matt de la Peña

October 1, 2010

Guest Blogger: Award-Winning Children's Author René Colato Laínez

This guest post by René Colato Laínez is part of his blog tour in support of his latest book, From North to South. He offered to write on a topic that I know will be very useful to my readers: the dos and don'ts of writing a multicultural (or Latino-themed) children's book. I hope you find it helpful. Children's Book Press is giving away copies of the book at the end of the blog tour, so make sure you leave a comment for a chance to win your copy!

By Award-Winning Author, René Colato Laínez

From North to South is my seventh book. In this story, José and his father travel from North to South to visit José’s mother in Tijuana, Mexico. Like José and his father, I have also traveled from north to south and east to west within the publishing world. During my journey, I have made many stops to help me learn the craft of writing at conferences, book festivals, critique groups, libraries, and bookstores. I have also met many people who have thanked me for writing multicultural books. Often, some of those same people ask me for tips on writing a multicultural story. This is my attempt at answering some of their questions:

What is a multicultural book?
A multicultural book reflects the experiences of diverse groups of people and promotes a greater understanding among cultures. These books authentically and realistically portray themes, characters, and customs unique to the group about which they are written, and give readers an opportunity to develop an understanding of others, as they affirm the important role that people of diverse backgrounds play in society.

How can I write a multicultural book?
Here are three of the most common mistakes made when attempting to write a multicultural picture book:

1. Relaying solely on a main character that is from the barrio, or who has Latin American roots.

A Latino child named Pedro lives in the barrio. He speaks Spanish and can draw beautiful cats. Pedro’s teacher gives him a sticker for his efforts.

What is multicultural about this story?
Pedro is a Latino child from the barrio and speaks Spanish. There might even be Spanish words in the story. But, ask yourself: What is the reader’s learning about Pedro’s culture?

This writing exercise never fails:
Change Pedro’s name. Maybe his name is now Joshua. Joshua lives in a non-ethnic neighborhood. He speaks English. And of course, he draws beautiful cats.

We have changed the name of the character and eliminated the Spanish words in the text. Does the story still work? Yes, it really has not changed at all! A multicultural story is more than a Hispanic character and a few Spanish words. The story must be unique and authentic. A foreign name, or dark skin color on a page are not enough to make a multicultural story.

2. My character eats beans and wears a sombrero. He also likes to break piñatas. Do I now have a multicultural book?

When writing a multicultural book, avoid stereotypes. Readers want to read stories that represent cultures in positive and respectful ways. Mexicans don’t generally go around wearing sombreros, and Caribbean women generally don’t dance with a bowl of fruit on their heads. On the other hand, Mexico is a country with a very rich history, wonderful traditions, and delicious food. The Caribbean has beautiful beaches, great music, and fantastic folktales. There are so many great things to tell about our cultures, why concentrate on stereotypes? Let’s write wonderful stories!

3. The other extreme: culture, culture, and more culture.

In order to create a multicultural story, authors often describe the cultural aspects of a story so much that they forget to create a plot! The result is a dry, boring story. An editor will definitely reject this type of story because it will not inspire readers to turn the page to read it. A story needs strong characters, a great plot, an extraordinary beginning, a great climax, and a convincing ending, as it exhibits aspects of the culture in question. Readers want an entertaining story first and foremost, regardless of its cultural elements. (Note: For Rene’s tips on writing picture books, see his previous post on VOCES.

Writing from Outside of the Culture
If you are writing outside of your culture, don’t ever write off the top of your head. If you have never lived in Mexico, China, or Morocco and want to write a story about those cultures, you will have to do extensive research in libraries, archives, and museums. But, by far, the best way to do this research is to meet the people you want to write about. Talk to them, participate in their games, visit their country, eat their food, become one of them while you are writing your story. Remember that it is always better to overdo your research. Later, you can choose the elements that will be most important to your story. Once you have finished your manuscript, show it to organizations and the people it is written about, and ask them to look for stereotypes and misconceptions. This will help you to avoid some of the pitfalls described above. Those who are the most passionate and involved with a culture are typically the best ones to write an authentic multicultural tale. With passion, comes the desire to spend hours and hours at the library, and with the people you are writing about. If there is no passion, there will be no truly authentic story to tell.

Good luck, and have fun writing a multicultural story!

René Colato Laínez