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Interview with Pat Mora
by Aline Pereira

Pat Mora is the writer of over 25 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. She has received numerous honors, including the 2006 ALA Pura Belpré and the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) for her book Doña Flor, published by Knopf, 2005.

A tireless literacy advocate, Pat is the founder of the family literacy initiative, El día de los niños/ El día de los libros, Children's Day/Book Day, celebrated annually on April 30th and representing an ongoing commitment to connecting all children to books and different languages and cultures.

You sometimes refer to yourself as a "woman from the border". Could you start by telling us about this geographical/emotional place where you come from?

I was born and spent much of my life on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas.  All four of my grandparents were born in Mexico and spoke only Spanish.  They came to El Paso at the time of the Mexican Revolution.  My dad came with his family as a little boy.  Mom was born in El Paso as were my three children.  The Southwest desert is a landscape of deep memories.  I sometimes compare the wonderful openness of the desert to the openness of a blank page.  The border taught me what I call "the glare of truth." I've written about my family's journey and stories in my memoir, House of Houses.

Few writers can claim your versatility in writing. Your work spans several genres (poetry, fiction and non-fiction), for children, young adults, as well as adults, in two languages (Spanish and English). Which of these genres and age groups do you feel more naturally connected to?

Poetry is my favorite genre whether for children or adults.  It poses the challenge of creating an experience with economy of language.  What pleasure I feel when I change even one word that makes a line more evocative! Each of these genres and age groups you mention, though, provides unique satisfactions and delights.

Tomás and the Library Lady was your first children's book to be accepted for publication, in 1989. However, it didn't get published until 1997. We hear that Raul Colón, the illustrator of the finished book, was actually the third illustrator to work on it. Can you tell us what happened, and how it felt to have to wait 8 years?

Tomás was an emotional journey.  I was a university administrator when the manuscript was accepted.  I'd faced many rejections and was elated that one of my children's books, one about a man I'd known and deeply respected, was going to be published—and by Knopf!  Then the wait began.  When I saw work by the first illustrator, I had my doubts that his style would enhance the story.  The editor was confident, though, and editors with art directors control such decisions.  One day at the university, I received a letter saying that, though this rarely happens, the publisher  had decided that the completed art did not meet their expectations, BUT that I should feel happy that they were willing to invest in a second illustrator.  They chose an extremely talented illustrator who lived in London.  I wondered if she'd be able to connect with this story of a migrant boy, but she did.  Her pieces were fine, but---she never finished.  I'd call and call the editor.  After a long time, the editor agreed to try again, and Raul Colón completed his wonderful work.  We've recently done a second book together, Doña Flor: A Tall Tale about a Giant Woman with a Great BigHeart.  I love Raul's work.

Another of your books, Rainbow Tulip, based on an episode from your mother's childhood, shows how she was caught between two worlds, playing the role of translator between her Spanish-speaking parents and her English-speaking school. You have been referred to as a  "translator of the Mexican American experience" yourself. How do these two things relate —or do they?— and when did you consciously decide to dedicate yourself to writing and celebrating your dual heritage and that of others?

You ask wonderful questions.  My mother was literally the translator generation in her family, the Delgados.  I heard one of my favorite stories of responses to Tulip  at a school in Colorado.  The class had read the book and was discussing it.  A young Polish boy raised his hand and said, "I'm the rainbow tulip in this class.  I'm the only one who speaks Polish at home."  I tear up at such stories.  One in five children in this country comes from a home in which a language other than English is the home language.  There are young translators like my dear mother in city after city.  What linguistic and cultural wealth we share in the United States!

Your most recent children's book, Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart (illus. by Raul Colón), was recently awarded the 2006 Pura Belpré Illustrator's Medal and the Pura Belpré Honor for Narrative. Who is Doña Flor, and what does she represent?

It brings me great happiness that Doña Flor is an ALA Notable and a winner of a Golden Kite Award.  I love the mystery of writing and don't fully know why I decided to write a tall tale and how Flor evolved.  Tall tales are, I believe, a uniquely U.S. literary tradition.  I thought it would be great fun to write such a story about an immense bilingual woman who's powerful, kind, and speaks every language "even rattler."  When I'm driving in this Southwest desert I love, I imagine Flor walking across it in her calm, huge strides.  I'm full of curiosity to hear and read what others think she represents.  I've found it psychologically interesting that she's solitary except for her animal friends.  Writers have a solitary side.  I'm terribly fond of the character Doña Flor and wish she were my neighbor.  This past fall, a second of my picture books was published, The Song of Francis and the Animals.  I like the fact that in both books a kind adult establishes a relationship with an animal through kindness.

You always talk about strong women in your poems and stories. Doña Flor, for example, is actually a giant, with a great big heart, who protects a village. Could you tell us a little about the importance of family, mother, mother earth, nature—themes often present in your work?

Another careful observation.  My mother, who was not physically tall, was an incredibly strong woman, internally strong and articulate.  Her command of two languages added to her strength.  She also had a fabulous sense of humor.   For me, then, strength doesn't have to be grim or without play.  The generations that preceded me faced many hardships, but they supported one another and helped each generation find positive power through education.

The natural world--and we humans are part of it--is a major source of inspiration and strength.  I'm not at all a big city person.  Every time I savor the Santa Fe landscape, I feel blessed to see the power of mountains, to hear the wind's music, to be dazzled by the stars.  Mountains, deserts, water, the moon are deep, feminine symbols of strength and endurance.  My first picture book, based on a poem for adults, is The Desert Is My Mother.

You've written and edited many poetry books for children and young adults, such as, Love to Mamá; Confetti: Poems for Children; and My Own True Name: New and Selected Poems for Young Adults, an anthology you both organized and contributed to. You have said elsewhere that when you're writing poetry, you 'like to begin longhand'. Why is that? How is the process of writing poetry different to writing other things? Does poetry writing make your heart beat faster?

I often feel there's a directness to prose that allows me to start entering text at the computer.  It's not that I won't edit; I love to revise, which many see as an illness on my part.  It's such fun!  Poetry, though, invites to meander in words.  I don't want to know where I'm going.  As Robert Frost said, I'm following, or as others have written, I'm tending the poem.  Once I have written enough that I become curious to see the poem, then I move to my laptop.

Does poetry make my heart beat faster?  It's difficult to convey the zing of pleasure when I solve some word or line issue.  Confetti comes out in Spanish this spring, and I worked with a fellow translator on the complex challenges of poetry translation.  I'm editing a book of haikus for children about the indigenous foods of the Americas.  I've sat and counted 5-7-5 beats and all but done a dance when I found a solution to helping a haiku "perk up" a bit. 

Two poetry books are due out next fall that perhaps illustrate the range of poetic play and pleasure I enjoy.  Marimba: Animales A - Z is a zany, rhyming alphabet book set in a zoo.  I was motivated to write the book by my desire to share 26 cognates, words similar in English and Spanish.  The adult collection, Adobe Odes, also has a celebratory theme, but working on a poem that deals with sadness can slow my heart way down to follow your image.  There's a long, painful poem, a true story of a mother's courage.  When I was deep in that piece, I moved into a slower, inner pace.

Your poems express experiences of acculturation that resonate with many different kinds of readers: first-generation immigrants who are adapting to life in the U.S; second/third-generation residents whose relatives are the living reminders of the acculturation process; and even those who don't question (that is, until they read the poems) whether or not their ancestors ever spoke anything but English. Is that an intentional goal when you set out to write a new story or poem, or just a wonderful "side effect" of your writing?

I don't think about an intellectual concept like "acculturation" when I'm entering a poem.  I'm focused on a story or a character or an image or a line.  Remember, I'm following, not leading.  However, what I am and where I come from do affect what intrigues me, what moves me, and what stories or pain or joy I want to preserve, to honor.

Yourcommitment to promoting the value of bilingual literacy and the bicultural Mexican-American heritage is clear in the books you write, and is reinforced when one knows the history of 'El Día de los niños/El Día de los libros', which you envisioned and started in 1997. Since then, El Día has gained the enthusiasm and support of many. Can you  please tell us about El Día's potential to unite people?

When the idea for Día came to me walking on the campus of the University of Arizona at Tucson, I'd been a border woman, a teacher, a university administrator committed to outreach to women and under-served populations.  I was keenly aware of the many issues that separate people and groups even, for example, within the national Latino community.  I love to read, a gift from my mother, and I liked the idea of linking all children of all languages and cultures to books, and to fostering books that reflect our grand diversity.  I also probably realized that working for children unites people.  Often people are a bit nervous about working with those who are different from themselves.  We can more easily set aside this reluctance when we share a clear, common goal.  Surely, in a democracy, we can understand how key family literacy is.  I'm committed to sharing what I call "bookjoy."  Books bring us joy when we need to relax, when we feel lonely, when we want information, when we need inspiration.  I want all of our children to experience that resource and solace.

You have just said how important books were to you as a child. When were you first exposed to poetry, in particular? Could you recommend a few poetry books for young readers?

I wrote a piece for the Children's Book Council (CBC) some years back about the orange-bound Childcraft books my parents bought for us.  I loved to open up the poetry volume and read rhyming, old-fashioned poems, many from Mother Goose.  My love of poetry might have started with that volume.  Most of my own poetry reading today is adult poetry although I also try to make time for poetry for children written by some of the great Spanish poets such as Lorca. To mention a few of the fine children's poets writing now in this country, I think of Francisco Alarcon, Janet Wong, and Lee Bennett Hopkins and his Days to Celebrate, among many others. 

In the My Own True Name anthology you've included a letter to young writers, inviting them to join in the word-play that poems are. What would you say now to children and young adults about the beauty and importance of poetry, to encourage them to read and write it?

In the Educators Section of my website, under Teachers Resources, I have a section titled "Poetry Power." I'm actually going to speak about the issue you raise with students at a school, in a few weeks.  I'll be trying to illustrate how much fun poetry is.  I take writing it very seriously, but I don't think that's the most effective way to lure young writers to the page.  If I were going to work with a group for a while, I'd seek to convey my curiosity about what they wanted to write about and allow them to explore.  We might play with poetic forms to see if that opened possibilities.  Once writers of any age discover that poetry is an opportunity to hear themselves and to become fascinated with how they might create an experience for the reader, I think writers become attached to poetry's possibilities.  They discover poetry's power and its pleasures.

Posted April 2006

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interviwee-Pat Mora

Pat Mora

By Pat Mora:

Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart (Knopf, 2005)

Rainbow Tulip (Viking Juvenile, 1999)

Confetti: Poems for Children (Lee & Low, 1999)

More on the web:

Visit her website to find a complete bibliography, a tool kit to celebrate El Día, teachers resources, and more.

Interested in fiction and nonfiction for grown-ups from the Pacific Rim and South Asia? Then take a look at the latest PaperTigers: Books+Water project, the online literary journal
WaterBridge Review.

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