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Reading Rockets' children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids' books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.

Meet Monica Brown!

August 30, 2016

Monica Brown’s life is full of words. She not only writes for and teaches adults, she introduces children to memorable characters in fact and fiction. I met Monica first through stories about Marisol, Lola, and Celia Cruz but one day met the woman behind the words. I stopped at a booth during a conference and met the writer who brought these characters to life for me. Happily, she agreed to answer my seemingly endless questions to share with a broader audience.

Monica Brown

As you read this interview with Monica and read (or reread her books), I think you’ll be as struck with her commitment to young readers and her talent for telling darn good stories, both factual and imagined, for children of all backgrounds.

Most of your picture books have been inspired or are about real people. How do you choose your subjects?

First and foremost, I chose to write about figures that inspire me and people whose lives I know will inspire children. As a Peruvian-American, a mother, a literature professor, and a writer, I really wanted to share the literary legacy of South American writers such as Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, and the writer who changed my life, Gabriel García Márquez. I also wanted to write about my activist heroes, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. At the time I wrote Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez/Lado a Lado: La Historia de Dolores Huerta y Cesar Chavez (Rayo), there wasn’t a single children’s book written about Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farmworkers Movement. I wanted to place her alongside of Cesar in history — where she belongs. In the past few years, however, I’ve turned more deliberately to fiction, to my own creative world. It’s lovely to write and have no limitations except my own creativity. I also wanted to write characters, like Marisol McDonald and Lola Levine, who didn’t yet exist in literature!

You write about imaginative, plucky girls like Lola Levine and Marisol MacDonald. What or who is the inspiration for these characters? 

I think all girls are amazing and just waiting to come into their superpowers!; My inspiration for smart, funny, fierce girls always starts with my own two daughters — being their mom has been the joy of my life. I wrote the Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match picture book series and the Lola Levine chapter book series wanted to offer my daughters, and all children, models of supportive, loving multicultural families. I wanted to share the mixed race, multicultural experience that has been largely absent in children’s literature. I also wanted to affirm for all that it’s okay to be a little different, to not fit in any one box, to be loud, competitive, wacky or even what some would call “weird” if that’s what moves you! I think a lot of pain, for children and adults, comes from a place of shame — of being embarrassed or uncomfortable with who and what you are. My characters, like the irrepressible Lola Levine, take risks, and they don’t always “win,” but they learn and grow and try and take risks.

Monica Brown books

How much of Monica Brown is in your characters?

I’d like to think I infuse my characters with the most hopeful parts of myself, the most humorous parts of myself. But I also try and create what I didn’t always have growing up: books that reflected my life, my family, and the experience of being a child of two cultures, the daughter of an immigrant whose first language was Spanish. I supposed there’s a great deal of me in the most recent Marisol McDonald book, Marisol McDonald and the Monster/y el monstruo (Lee & Low). I think children (and adults!) with big imaginations, can have big fears and I wanted little Marisol to deal with her fears with the help of her family and her own creativity.

Both Lola and Marisol continue to have new adventures in each book. What inspires you to continue on with the characters?

I’ve created whole worlds for each of these characters. I could happily write about their continuing adventures forever! There is so much noise out in the world — on social media, with video games, so many extra curricular activities, trends, etc. I want to create a quiet revolution and write books that let children take a break from the world and the noise and slip into their own minds in the quiet of a book that makes them feel comforted and laugh and dream and ponder the beauty that is within them and around them in the form of family and friends and teachers.

As a college professor, you’ve written scholarly articles for adults.  What inspired you to write for the other end of the spectrum? 

I think I’m writing for the most hopeful end of the spectrum of readers! I think writing for children, writing for the present and the future, gives me a unique chance to impact the world. It feels essential to me, especially in this political moment, where the rhetoric around bilinguality, immigration, “insiders” and “outsiders” has reached a disturbing level of vitriol. The children in our schools need, more than ever, to be able to access their own creativity and find confidence in their own sense of self — if my books can support and inspire that, I’ve done my job. I like to think that my books are a positive force in the world for children.

What role does illustration play in your picture books?

I’ve been able to work with some of the most amazing artists working today, and also help launch their art into the world. I worked with both Rafael López and John Parra on their very first picture books and I’m thrilled with the role I had in selecting them to illustrate my books on Celia Cruz and Gabriela Mistral, respectively. Picture books are the place where art and text meet and thus the artist-author collaboration is incredibly important. I’ve been lucky to work with artist at the beginning of their careers, and established artists like Caldecott winner David Díaz, who illustrated my book, Maya’s Blanket/la manta de Maya.

What would you say to those who think writing for children is easy or at least easier than writing for adults?

Well, more than one person has described children’s publishing as a “bunny eat bunny” world, but I don’t fully agree. Writing for children has its specific challenges and specific delights, but to do anything well takes effort, discipline, patience, self-belief, and dedication and that is true for writers for any age. I think writing for children is actually more difficult than writing for adults, because you aren’t writing for your peers. Children’s writers need insight into children’s minds, ways of speaking, being, and growing and each developmental stage is different. Picture book authors have a different audience than middle grade or chapter book authors. Adult writers can more easily write in their own voice or age perspective.

Your books (especially two of my personal favorites …Celia and Tito…) read aloud extremely well; there’s a cadence and rhythm to the language. How do you make your words emulate music or a particular beat?

I loved writing about Celia Cruz and Tito Puente for so many reasons. One is obvious — I love salsa music! Their music inspired my words and I tried to infuse the books with musical, lyrical language and lots of movement and joy. I think picture books can be compared to poetry because they are language distilled — each and every word counts. It was lovely to balance the joy of music with the extraordinary lives these two figures lived.

What is your next project?

Lola Levine and the Ballet Scheme just came out in hardcover and the first two Lola books, Lola Levine Is Not Mean and Lola Levine, Drama Queen are now out in paperback. This thrills me because the low paperback price point makes the books more accessible to all. So basically, it’s a Lola world, and I just live in it! Lola Levine Meets Jelly and Bean will be out in 2017 and I’m currently absorbed in writing book 5 and 6 in the Lola Levine Chapter book series and it’s a delight. I do also have a new picture book on the near horizon, titled Frida and Her Animalitos, which is a very personal book inspired by the great Frida Kahlo, and my own mother, who was also a painter, and someone who faced dire physical challenges.

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"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase