I had the good fortune to talk about her award-winning book Lupe Wong Won’t Dance with kidlit author Donna Barba Higuera. She was just awarded a Pura Belpré honor and a Sid Fleischman award for humor!
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance
APP: Donna, can you tell me something about yourself and your journey as a kidlit writer? How did you get started?
DBH: I didn’t set out to write “kidlit” specifically. I’ve always written down the stories that entered my imagination. Mostly short stories. I decided to try writing a novel about nine years ago and knew I had a lot to learn. I found my critique group, The Papercuts ( http://www.papercuts.xyz ) They have become my second family; a strange, dysfunctional family, but I love them and so I’m keeping them. We meet weekly, so I get lots of writing practice.
It took many years and hit a few potholes, but I have an amazing agent, Allison Remcheck, with Stimola Literary Studio. Shortly after signing with Allison, I met my editor, Nick Thomas with Levine Querido. (www.levinequerido.com) He was leading a first pages SCBWI round table. He read the first few hundred words of Lupe Wong Won’t Dance, and a few weeks later, the book was off to acquisitions. It sounds like a quick journey, but it was years of conferences, weekly critique, and about 5.5 novels to publication.
My husband always reminds me when people say I got lucky, “Luck is when perseverance meets opportunity.”
On the Merits (or not!) of Square Dancing
APP: You are so right, perseverance is something we can all use on this kidlit journey. Your main character, Lupe, certainly has the skill to persevere! Your story starts off with your Lup being horrified of square dancing in PE and doing everything she can to eliminate it. Why square dancing? I loved it when I was a kid, probably because I was no athlete and we actually got to touch each other. Plus there was music! But Lupe is dead set against it.
DBH: This comes up a lot! I think we have to consider that someone like yourself who probably hated basketball or baseball, there are just as many like Lupe who feel the same about dancing. But without giving spoilers, Lupe grows in her understanding and feelings on square dancing.
I’ve discovered people have strong opinions on square dancing one way or another. So many ask why Lupe is so set against dancing. Why not just do it? I have equally if not more people who express how much they hated square dancing. Or how it was just something that made them uncomfortable.
This book isn’t meant to criticize square dancing itself. But rather that feeling of being told you “have to do something” but not understanding entirely why.
Pitching the Lupe Wong Won’t Dance Story
APP: Yes, I can totally relate to that and I’m sure that so many kids can as well! Can you tell me how you were able to pitch your story. What do you think caught the attention of an agent and/or editor?
DBH: Uggh! I am the worst at writing pitches. I had a really difficult time writing a query letter. I had several rejections state they weren’t interested in a book about square dancing or baseball. That was my fault for not pitching the book properly. Neither of those is what this book is about. It’s about friendship. It’s about speaking up about things that don’t feel fair, equitable or just. But also learning to determine what battles really matter. But I still don’t think any of those things are what caught my editor’s attention. Lupe has a very strong voice. Lupe doesn’t try to be funny. But it’s obvious from the first few pages that she has stuff to say.
Humor and Heart
APP: She certainly does! Lupe is a story that uses a lot of humor as well as heart, especially humor about the body, odors and changes that happen in middle grade. Did you get any pushback from editors about that?
DBH: No pushback at all. All those things you mentioned are very real to middle schoolers. Not all sensory details are ahem…pleasant. Not all bodily changes are embraced. Books need to feel genuine, especially to middle schoolers. Those smells and changes and feelings are real life to kids. Kids need to feel that as writers, we aren’t acting as gatekeepers to filter what they can or can’t read. My editor fully embraced all the awkwardness and difficulty of bodily changes in middle school.
APP: I know kids will totally relate to that. But Lupe isn’t the only one going through changes. I loved your secondary characters and how they grew in the novel, especially Gordon. His quirkiness was lovable. But after his makeover and amazing tooth repair, I felt distressed when he intentionally destroyed his flipper. Why did he do that? Couldn’t he have saved those teeth? I felt bad for his grandma!
DBH: I’m so glad you asked this question. No one has. This was something we discussed a lot. I pondered at length before deciding I had to include it. I was a kid with the double whammy of having a big gap between my front teeth in addition to a wedged chip on the right. I also had a speech issue when I was very young. I felt pressured by the dentist to fix my front teeth even though I was perfectly fine the way I was. I went to speech therapy.
I know now, through Gordon, I was addressing my wounds. Gordon’s prosthetic tooth flipper was not his idea. Well-meaning adults thought they were doing him a favor. But what message did their unsolicited “improvements” to Gordon’s appearance or the way he spoke send? As I was as a child, he was perfectly fine the way he was. Kids have enough pressure to achieve what society envisions as perfection. I wanted to show a character who both loved himself and had friends who accepted him for who he was. I know the monetary value of the broken flipper might bug people. But I’d argue, there are costs to a child’s self-esteem that are far more valuable.
Culture, Race & Identity
APP: No doubt about that. Your book is also about cultural identity, a subject that fascinates me. Lupe worries that her identity as a Chinese – Mexican is not recognized by society at large, and she demands to be recognized. Did that experience come from real life for you?
DBH: I think many of us who are mixed race have experienced this. I am Chicana and White. I was told from the time I was a young child to “choose one” bubble on the scantron. I am not a single bubble, nor are my children who are also Chinese. I am proud of all of who I am and I want my children to feel the same about all their races and cultures. Mark all your bubbles proudly kids!
We all have such different and varied experiences. No two are the same. I wanted to show a character, who like myself and daughters, lives in multiple cultural experienced. I hope kids reading will cherish and find pride in all of who they are. I hope they will never feel pressured to choose one part of themselves over another.
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APP: I hope so too, and I think they will! But this book is also about parts of identity that can lead extremely challenging and painful experiences. How did you decide on the amount of racism or prejudice to include in the book? The lyrics that Lupe finds are so jarring that they end up changing a curriculum. Did you worry about making that too stressful for an MG?
DBH: This is such a tough question. Yes. I worried. Knowing I was writing for children made me very hesitant to include that. My own instincts are to protect others from harm. But I also know that seeing unpleasant and hurtful history is how we grow and learn to do better. And what better place to learn than through the safety of a book? Still I was extremely cautious about how I presented the information.
So, I did it through Lupe’s eyes. She discovers things any child could find with a simple internet search.
This is the article I found and imagined Lupe would have found. The book presents this information via Lupe and how she decides to handle it without showing the article itself. But I would like to warn you, the article is difficult to read and some of the content offensive: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/05/11/310708342/recall-that-ice-cream-truck-song-we-have-unpleasant-news-for-you
Not Everyone Grows
APP: Thank you for sharing that, and thank you for having Lupe find that on her own in your book. I think many kids might do exactly what she did when they are looking into a topic and encounter information that can be extremely difficult to process. On another note, a lovely note, tell me about the stage scene with Lupe and her gym teacher. It really took me by surprise and moved me. How did you come up with that?
DBH: I don’t really know! I just wanted to show that adults have wounds too. Coach Solden (I chose her last name because I thought it sounded sad) had a square dancing wound. I wanted to show that sometimes we carry things that happen to us when we are young for a lifetime. Part of Coach Solden’s character arc was to heal that childhood wound. That scene made me so happy to write!
APP: I’m sure it did, it had so much heart and humanity and the way you wrote it made me picture it perfectly in my head. On the other hand what about those horrible girls that are so mean to Lupe? Do you think it is important to include characters in MG that can be horrible and who don’t change for the better?
DBH: Yes. That is real life. Not everyone grows. Not everyone learns to become a better person as they go through life. I think kids need to see they’re not alone. They need to see we all run into crumby personalities and mean people.
Listening to Kids
APP: Well, that certainly is true. Luckily Lupe has many caring, if at times bumbling adults in her life. I loved when she told the principal that her attempt at integrating cultures in the school via a celebration is, ‘a good start’. That is so true and such a common way that schools deal with issues of diversity – celebrations rather than deep exploration of issues. Lupe is right to call it a ‘start’. Did you every worry that Lupe seemed more insightful and perceptive in many ways than the adults who surround her? Or is that just reflective of real life – kids know more than we do!
DBH: Kids are so much more insightful than we give them credit for. I think so many are just intimidated to give their opinions. Or perhaps feel no one is listening. My own children say such intelligent answers to life’s questions. Far more astute than what I may have been thinking. So yeah, I think kids know more than we do! Or maybe we just forgot.
APP: Yes, I agree, they are way ahead of us. That brings me to what kids are facing In today’s divisive and difficult environment. Lupe has a double whammy as both Latinx and Asian. Do you think that makes this story especially relevant and timely?
DBH: I didn’t mean for this book to be timely. I was just writing a story based on my daughter’s experience. But yes. I worry for my daughters with how divisive our country has been recently. But I’ve also raised my daughters to be proud of all of who they are. They know it’s okay to walk away from those who are unwilling to have empathy or kindness for others. They also know you can have differing opinions and still love others. But yes, Lupe’s biracial heritage and the issues of race in our country, especially recently, have made her story and struggles far more relevant.
Advice for Diverse Authors
APP: I think so too and I appreciate that Lupe Wong Won’t Dance is available for kids of all backgrounds to discover. Finally, do you have any word of advice for others who are aspiring kidlit authors from diverse backgrounds?
DBH: Don’t be afraid to write what you know. Don’t put your culture in parenthesis or italics. Meaning, don’t stop to explain or show it’s somehow different for the reader normal experience. Let the reader experience a culture they might not understand through your characters eyes. Giving readers a welcoming place that offers them the chance to understand a culture outside their own.
APP: Thank you so much for the wise words and your wonderful work.
DBH: Thank you and I’d love to give thanks and credit to those who’ve supported me and helped usher Lupe into the world: My agent and biggest cheerleader, Allison Remcheck at Stimola Literary Studio. My genius editor, Nick Thomas, at Levine Querido who is brilliant at finding the heart of the stories and characters and helping to give them a voice. I am also so appreciative of my critique group, The Papercuts and my own supportive family.
Donna is also the author of picture book El Cucuy is Scared Too!
Donna has generously offered to send a copy of, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance to one lucky winner US only! Please like, retweet, and follow MUF for a chance to win.