Interview with Monica Brown
Monica Brown is an award-winning author of bilingual children's books, including My Name Is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/ Me llamo Celia: La vida de Celia Cruz, which won the Américas Award and received a Pura Belpré Honor. Her books are inspired by her Peruvian-American heritage and by her passion to share Latino/a stories with children.
She has taught young people and adults of all ages and is an Associate Professor of English at Northern Arizona University, specializing in U.S. Latino Literature and Multicultural Literature. Her scholarly publications include the book Gang Nation: Delinquent Citizenship in Puerto Rican and Chicano and Chicana Literature.
She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with her husband and two daughters.
I think multicultural literacy first requires that we recognize how diverse our nation and our world is. Becoming more literate in this way also requires us to recognize our common humanity and the specific histories - sometimes filled with the unpleasant realities of racism, colonialism, and poverty, among other forces - that have affected all communities in one way or another. Without recognizing these particular historical realities, we will never truly appreciate the beauty and joy of our various cultural traditions, beliefs, languages, not to mention the stories and heroes that should be shared by all of us. The field of literacy can gain from this approach because it recognizes that language is intimately linked to these other forces. Monolingual campaigns, for example, are residually connected to colonialist and assimilationist efforts.
Can you say a bit more about the links between literacy and culture?
The two are inextricable. I believe that we are all multiply literate, that we are all a part of different literacy communities - that of home, work, and for some, church. The "language" we use to speak to our grandmother might not be the same as the "language" we use to speak to our best friend. I’m not just talking about Spanish and English, etc, but the way we communicate more generally. I believe that we can, for example, learn the traditional markers of literacy in the United States - reading and writing standard English - without denigrating our other literacy communities, which may be bilingual, may be grounded in oral traditions, may be regional. So when I teach writing, I make my students aware of audience - of rhetorical communities. The "language" of home may be different from the “language” of school, of work, of contemporary public life. I want my students to be able to move across and among literacy communities, without necessarily privileging one over the other.
In your experience with young people, what effect does increasing levels of literacy have on raising aspirations? How does an awareness of multicultural issues fit in with this?
I speak not as a literacy expert per se, but as someone that has been teaching literature (and how to think critically about it) for over a decade. Reading quality literature opens up the world to young people - be they children, teenagers, or young adults. It also helps them to discover their own voices and understand other perspectives. I think writers have a very important role to play - especially children's writers, because their books may be a child's first exposure to communities and cultures beyond their own.
You yourself have a Peruvian mother and a North-American father. Were you able to find experiences that mirrored your own in the books you read as a child? How has that experience had a bearing on your own career; and in what ways has it been different, a generation later, for your daughters?
On the one hand, as a child I didn’t see myself, or my specific heritage mirrored in any of the books I read and, on the other, I was engaged by almost all the books I encountered - from the "Little Golden Books" to fairy tales. My mother is a gifted storyteller, and I heard many stories and songs from her. I connected with this history and her incontrovertible belief in following one's dreams. I was a voracious reader and loved the way that books could transport me to other places. It is in retrospect that I am sad that none of those "places" reflected my Latina heritage, or my father's Jewish, Scottish and Italian heritage.
It wasn't until high school and college at UC, Santa Barbara that I was connected with writing by U.S. Latinos/as and Latin Americans. It was an energizing, eye-opening moment of recognition that, along with my mother's wonderful stories of growing up in Peru, set me on the path I'm still following. My daughters have had very different experiences and know that their stories are valuable and that they can grow up to be authors, to have public voices also. They are also growing up with a clearer understanding of the idea of social justice and equality for all people.
You recently took a sabbatical from your university teaching to concentrate on your writing – and produced three books! What for you was particularly memorable about that experience?
Believe it or not, my sabbatical was over two years ago now. Most memorable, not surprisingly, was the open schedule, the time to write and read freely: every writer’s dream! It also gave me more time to meet with the teachers, librarians and students who read my books. I finished My Name is Gabito, Butterflies on Carmen Street and Pelé, King of Soccer, and began a novel that is about half way complete. The transition to writing for adults has been a welcome challenge, and the experience has confirmed that my first love and vocation is writing for children.
My Name is Gabito / Me llamo Gabito, following on from your previous picture-books, is a picture-book biography which reads like a story. What did you enjoy most about writing of Garcia Marquez as a young man?
First, I have to say I was incredibly intrigued by his amazing story. I suppose the stories of his childhood really drew me in: his prophetic parrot, his grandmother's stories about the family's ghost, his penchant for reading the dictionary and the way that developed his love of language. Those are the details I latched onto and which gave me the key for explaining to children his use of magical realism and its connection to the "real" world. Children seem to understand the concept of magical realism better than adults do.
Meanwhile Butterflies on Carmen St / Mariposas en la calle Carmen revolves around monarch butterflies. What inspired you to write this story?
This is a story about migration - among peoples and in nature. I wanted to write a story where borders weren’t battle grounds. In this book, a Mexican grandfather and his Mexican-American granddaughter learn about the beautiful and borderless monarch butterflies and in the process, the child, Julianita, learns more about her grandfather, her heritage, and her culture.
All of your books have been illustrated by different, very talented artists, each with a distinctive style. What do you think each illustrator has brought to their respective stories?
I feel exceptionally fortunate to have worked with incredibly talented artists. I know I’m biased, but I think that Rafael López, Raul Colón, John Parra, April Ward, Joe Cepeda and Rudy Gutierrez are among the very best artists working today. It has been an honor to partner with them: they each bring such unique perspectives and gifts to my stories. The relationship between author and illustrator, mediated by editor and art director, is certainly a unique one. When all goes well, it's the best gift an author could ever hope to receive. My art directors or editors have made final decisions about artists, and most of the work with artists is done under their direction. Fortunately, I have had amazing relationships with my editors and they have invited my consultation and feedback along the way.
I note that as well as telling stories, you use music during your presentations. What kind of music do you play and what is its connection with what you are trying to convey?
The music I share depends on what book I’m reading - when I read My Name is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/ Me Llamo Celia: La Vida de Celia Cruz, for example, I share Celia's music and often end the reading by teaching the children a bit about how to dance the merengue: my book shares some of the wonderful history of Salsa music in the Americas - a blend of rock, rumba, mambo and jazz; and when they hear Celia's beautiful voice, they appreciate this musical tradition even more.
I also share the songs that my mother sang to me when I was little, such as "Los Pollitos" and I connect these songs to the characters/historical figures in my books. Music is a powerful medium of communication and in my mind, the arts are intimately connected - be they music, language, fine art, drama, etc. In my presentations I make that connection clear and there is a lot of play.
And what can you tell us about Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chàvez, which should be coming out soon?
It was an honor and a delight to work on this project. Truly, the time I spent researching and writing about these two amazing figures was a gift, one that I hope to pass on to the children and adults who read the book. Side by Side places Dolores Huerta alongside Cesar Chávez, where she should be, and shares their unique histories with children.
All your picture books are bilingual (English and Spanish). How do bilingual books help literacy efforts?
For the very things we have been discussing here - it allows for literacy encounters that are cross-generational. A monolingual Spanish-speaking grandmother can read alongside her English-only grandson and English or Spanish Language Learners of all ages can benefit from using the side-by-side text to learn the new language. By having two beautiful languages together on the page bilingual books are in themselves a celebration of literacy.
Are there any authors or particular books you can recommend, which, like your own, give young readers the breadth to see the world open at their feet?
Yes, many. Here are a few titles to start with; there are many more to read and explore:
Playing Lotería/ El juego de la lotería by René Colato Lainez, illustrated by Jill Arena;
Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?
I’m working on a number of projects, as always: and the the best place to find out about them, including upcoming books and talks is at my website.
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Associate Editor
Posted July 2008
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