Transcript from an interview with Alma Flor Ada

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Alma Flor Ada. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

A blessed childhood

I had a blessed childhood. I lived with my extended family in my grandmother's house, and she's the person who taught me to read — taught me to read in a very amazing way. Even though she was a teacher and there was plenty of paper at home, she taught me to read by writing words on the earth, with a stick, as we walked around our farm. Whenever there was something that caught my attention or that she knew was of interest to me, she'd spell the name, and she'd tell me that. And so, in a way, it made reading so organic and so related to nature, to the outdoors, to the world, that it's — it was fascinating.

And I've written about this, and I won't tell you now all these stories, but I do remember when she taught me the word for "rose" in — in a way to teach me the letter "r" and how she wrote it in her cursive with a little — with a little loop up there and told me that that was a rose that wanted so much to see the world and was climbing the wall of the garden because of the wonders that exist in the world outside.

And I can even remember her voice right now. And I was only three years old, but it impressed me so much - that idea of seeing the world, that it's something that stayed with me. The love for roses also stayed with me, and the love for words.

But I must say that before learning to read, I learned to enjoy words. My mother used to sing me all these old, ancient, medieval ballads to put me to sleep, and I loved listening to these words, some of which I understood and some which I did not, but which had such a resounding charm to me. And my grandmother used to sing me verses that she put her own music to. And my own father, who was not very musical, he would still sing me songs.

And all of these words I kept during the day, and I kept remembering them. I memorized them. My grandmother taught me poem after poem that I memorized when I was very young, so finding them in books, then, was a revelation. It was like, "I can hold on to them; they are here, for me."

But the love for words was essential, and it began so early.

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From Cuba to Colorado

I came first to the United States when I was 15. My parents gave me the option of having a quinceañera party and spend money on that, or send me to the United States for a summer to learn English, and I decided that it'd make much more sense to come to the States for a summer than to have a lavish party. And I came to Pennsylvania to a girls' school for summer, where I learned some English. And then when I was — when I finished — I was 17 when I finished high school — I was able to get a scholarship to a college in Colorado, where I was asked to be the assistant to the Spanish department teachers, who knew the language grammatically and knew a lot of the literature, but really had not the fluency with it. And it was — this is pre- language labs technology, so they wanted somebody that would actually read the lessons and practice the exercises and give a pronunciation model to the students. And that was my first experience on becoming a teacher, because as fate would have it, the sweet nun that was supposed to be the professor of the course had a stroke a couple of days before classes began, so they didn't have a replacement, and they said, "Well, let's put the Cuban girl there to just take over the classes for a few days until we get somebody." And then they decided, "Well, she's doing it so well, she can stay." So, at 17, I found myself teaching Spanish 101 and Spanish 201.

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An organic process

It's been such a blessed life, but it's happened - you know, now I have - I've written more than 200 children's books. I mean it's — and it's even a little bit scary to say that. But I never set out to do it. I never said, "I'm gonna be an author." "I'm gonna win awards." "I'm gonna be" — none of that. I — it was all organic. I wrote the first books, because I wanted my students to have that material. I wrote these sort things. I wanted my daughter to have it and then other children to have it, and — and it has all happened a little bit at a time. It's like — and I tell kids when they comment on this, and I go, "Look, I never set out to be a grandmother of nine kids. I can tell you I first had a daughter and then a son and then another. And, you know, today, here is where I see myself."

And it's the same with these books. They — they were all born out of real experiences. I mean you take Gathering the Sun on the table, which is one of my most well known and most beloved books. These were poems that I would write at night when I came from working with field — farm workers in the fields in California, and I would just — these ideas would just come, and I would write. And I wrote other poems that were far more complex and I haven't made those into a book. But one day, I was given the opportunity to put these poems together, and they got shortened so that you could have it in two languages when you need two languages on a page, and because I wanted these wonderful illustrations of Simon Silva.

But the reality is that I never set out to do this. I did it a bit at a time — one here, one there. And that's true of so many other things. I write when - when I get an idea, and sometimes I don't even know I'm making a book.

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The Golden Coin

And it's a story that was very difficult to get published. Most publishers told me that American children would not be interested in such a story. I have all this series of rejection letters, but eventually Athenaeum picked it up, and then they published it, and it won the Christopher Award. And that really opened doors for me to be able to submit other manuscripts for publication.

But it's a story that just came to me one night after working with farm working parents, talking to them about the importance of education, what they could do for them — and all of that late at night, because it was summer, and they work on the fields until ten o'clock. I'm returning by myself, through the fields, on my car, and I began seeing this story as if you were seeing it in a movie on the windshield. I mean the story was just there, passing by. It was just all there.

So, I cried all the way home. When I got home, I went to the basement, where I had my desk, and I sat down and wrote the whole story and just left it there, because I knew I would forget, otherwise. And I went to bed and went to sleep, and when I woke up in the morning, I said, "Last night I had a dream of a story. I only wish I could remember what it was." And when I found the papers, I couldn't believe it. And it was, you know, all there.

So, sometimes they just come.

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A bilingual author

Well, I have written very different kinds of books. It seems part of it is the fact of being bilingual. For example, poetry and writing poetry is one of my most significant creative things, but I can only do that in Spanish. I can't really do poetry in English, so I have a world of poetry with many books, an A, B, C — an animal A, B, C — which has poems about animals whose name begins with the letters, but poems about the letters themselves, which is very well known among the Spanish-speaking children. And whenever I go, they will tell me back their favorite, and they know them very well. I have another A, B, C of the ocean that was recently published. I have just collections and collections of poems in multiple anthologies, so that the author in me.

But in English, I found that I needed to depend more on the story — on the power of the story, because I can't do the playful things that I do with the language in Spanish, the puns, the rhymes, the alliterations — those things. I don't have that skill in English, so I need to depend on strong characters, strong plot, a good narrative, a good pace to get the kids interested. So, then I become a different person and a different writer in the other language, and that's, you know, part of the richness of being bicultural.

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A source of unity

The folktales have been a source of unity. Again, it's a wonderful thing to be together with groups of parents that have different backgrounds, and when one mentions one of those stories, they will know it — maybe with variations. Many of the stories have different endings and different developments, but they have the same characters, and so that's a wonderful source of commonality; as are the nursery rhymes. And that's why those two books Pio Peep! and Mamá Goose are so important to me, because they are not only rescuing for other generations the nursery rhymes that we learned and our grandparents knew, but it's also showing the children that, regardless of what part of the Spanish-speaking world they come from, some of these are the same. And others have evolved and now have many different versions, but that's also part of the richness.

You know, people make a lot of issue about the Spanish language, saying, "Oh, but that's Mexican Spanish," versus, "That's Colombian Spanish," or, "Castilian Spanish," as if it wasn't the same language. And I try to emphasize the fact that all these variations are synonyms and that what makes the Spanish language rich in that respect is precisely that there may be multiple ways of saying the same thing.

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Family wisdom

It started in the struggle for bilingual education in 1970. So, you see, it's been a long time. It's 36 years of seeing one generation after another, after another, of parents who want the best for their children, who dream about their children being able to enjoy that American dream that they will never be able to be quite a part of, that hope for their children to have a better future and a fruitful life. Because I do ask the parents - and I have tons and tons of answers from the parents - "What are your goals for your children?" And you'd be surprised. None of them really say that they'd be rich. They say, "We want them to not struggle as hard as we have, but we want them to be honest. We want them to be respectful. We want them to be kind to other people. We want them to be part of the other community in a healthy way." I mean everything they want for their children is so admirable.

But I also see how so many of those children don't really make it through; how they don't finish high school; how they end up in the menial jobs, and how many of them do get involved in gangs, in problems. And all we have to do is look at statistics of our jails. I mean it's horrible how much delinquency there is in our nation, and we have to prevent that from happening. And I'm convinced that one of the ways to prevent that is to strengthen the family, is to strengthen the role of the parents in the eyes of their children, is for the schools to ask something from the parents not on the terms of, you know, "Come and help us with a potluck," but, "What is the wisdom?" "What have you learned through life?" "What is your best advice for your children?" "What are your dreams and goals for your children?" "What is a proverb that has been useful to you in life?" "What is a saying that you remember in" — "in moments of significance in your life?" "What is the moment that changed your life?" "What is a meaningful contribution you've made to life?" "What is something you know how to do well, and how did you learn to do that?"

Those kinds of reflections — this is the work I do — aside from writing children's books: is to work with parents and schools into developing a home-school connection in which the parents become the authors of books where this is the content — books that are published by the teachers, books that are collected by the teachers. Many times, it's the children that are bringing in the information to the classroom, but that we like to call our families' wisdom, and where we want to recognize that these parents, who may not have a formal education, who may sometimes not even know how to read or write very well, do have a knowledge gained from life and from their struggle and from the heritage of having listened to the stories of their ancestors, and having listened to how other people in their family have gone through life. And rescuing that is really my mission.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943