I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Karla Arenas Valenti, author of the extraordinary new MG novel, LOTERIA. This story blends the magic with the real in the spirit of much Latin American literature, and takes places in Mexico. As a writer who strives to celebrate diversity in language and culture in my writing, I found this book especially inspiring and had lots of questions for Karla.
Diversity as a Transformative Experience
APP: Karla, I very much enjoyed reading LOTERIA! Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions.
I love it when authors mix languages and incorporate diverse cultural perspectives in literature. Is that something that you feel was important to this story, and to your other writing.
KAV: Absolutely! In fact, this was one of my objectives in writing “diverse” literature. I see diversity in storytelling as having two prongs: (a) writing or illustrating stories in which all readers can see themselves (diversity serves to ground the reader in the familiar) and (b) writing or illustrating stories that diversify the reader’s experience (diversity serves to transform the reader).Of course, I hope that readers will see themselves in LOTERIA (as I do), but I also wrote this book with the intent of diversifying the personal experience of non-Mexican readers. My goal was to plunge readers into life in a Mexican city: experiencing sounds and sights that are familiar to children in Mexico; exploring culture themes and ideas that are common and beloved in Mexico. By immersing readers in this “diverse” world, I hope they will be transformed, incorporating aspects of this new world into their existing one.
Exploring Big Questions
APP: I love that idea, literature as a transformative experience.This book is about one girl but it is also about a philosophical question – whether or not there is free will. How did you come to write about that and why?
KAV: I am a philosopher at heart and am always exploring big questions. As a writer for children, I always try to pose some of these big questions in my stories. This one (the one about free will vs fate) was one I had been trying to write about for many years.
I wanted to find a way to pose the question and present both sides of the argument in a thought-provoking and engaging manner for children. It occurred to me that a game of chance would provide a perfect setting. The question was, which game?
As it turned out, my father provided the answer when he came to visit us and brought a reminder of home: a LOTERIA game set. As we laid out the boards and shuffled the cards, the story began to take shape in my mind and before I knew it, Life and Death had made their grand appearance.
APP: As a critical and creative thinking teacher, I love the idea of introducing big questions through stories. When you are writing, how important is it to you that your stories make your readers think?
KAV:All of my stories explore some “big” question, whether in a picture book format or a novel. In fact, my biggest challenge as an author is not straying too far in the weds with the big ideas. But making sure there’s enough of a plot to keep my readers engaged.
APP: There certainly is plenty of plot to keep readers very much engaged in Loteria! I enjoyed the relationship between Life and Death, both of whom are characters in the book. Did you base these characters’ personalities purely on your imagination or are they grounded in Mexican folklore and/or belief systems?
KAV: Catrina is a beloved Mexican figure that I cannot take credit for. And in a way, she created Life, for he needed to be her equal – as riveting and wise as Death – in order for the story to work.
APP: I found their relationship very interesting. Yet, they are not the main characters in the story. The main character is an eleven year old girl named Clara. Was it important for you that Clara not be particularly good at anything or have any special talents or abilities?
KAV: Thank you for pointing this out. Yes! This was a deliberate choice. I wanted Clara to be “extraordinarily ordinary” precisely to show that her transformation from ordinary to heroic was not the result of a special trait but rather the ordinary magic that lived within her.
Twists and Turns
APP: I love the idea of being ‘extraordinarily ordinarily’ and still being the main character in a book. As it turns out, her experience is anything but ordinary. Clara is the focus of an extraordinary game played by Life and Death. Did you invent the game of Loteria as it is played in this book, or is this based on an actual game that is played by people?
KAV: It is an actual and very popular game in Mexico. The game is a bit like Bingo with a board that has a grid of sixteen boxes on it. Each board has different images printed on each of the boxes (instead of numbers as is traditional in Bingo).
The game master (cantor) will flip a card from a deck of 54 cards and call out a riddle that relates to that image. Once the players figure out the riddle, they must find it on their board. If they have that image, they place a token on that square. The first person to get four squares in a row wins the game.
APP: Well, now I really want to play the game myself! Solving the riddles sounds like fun. On another note, I was quite surprised at how the story ended. Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us if you changed your mind about how the story would end while writing it? Or did you know the end from the beginning?
KAV: I knew pretty early on how I wanted the story to end. However, I needed the philosophical justification to make sense. So, I was very deliberate in how I built up the arguments for free will vs fate along the way, such that by the time the reader got to the end, it would all make sense. Unfortunately, that was not at all how things panned out in my first draft.
Ironically, the fate I had planned for Clara did not unfold as I intended. And I had also argued Life and Death into a philosophical conundrum that I could not resolve. What did I do?
You’ll laugh, but I had to give Clara free will to tell the story as she wanted it told. To my great surprise (and relief!) she came up with an answer to the question of free will that I had not anticipated. And it also led to the surprise ending!
Challenge by Design
APP: Wow, that is amazing and it really works for the story. Congratulations on a masterful plot! Ia m wondering about the challenges you faced as you wrote this story.
KAV: The biggest challenge I had was making sure the philosophical debate lined up with the plot, and that every argument (for or against free will) unfolded seamlessly in Clara’s life. My second challenge was making sure I didn’t get too lost in the philosophical aspects of it all. Fortunately, my brilliant editor (Katharine Harrison), was able to give the right amount of guidance to make this work!
APP: Yay for brilliant editors, and editors who are willing to take on books that explore stories from diverse perspectives that may not quite fit mainstream narratives. I find that much Latin American children’s literature is a bit edgier than what is often published in the United States. Did you feel that your book was pushing the limits a little bit or were you confident that it would appeal to a US audience?
KAV: Yes, and that was by design (part of my attempt to diversify the experience of non-Mexican readers).
APP: I think you definitely accomplished your goal! What’s next for you as a storyteller?
KAV: I am currently working on a second book for Knopf. This is not in the LOTERIA world but will have similar elements: a big philosophical question, magical realism, set in beautiful Mexico. I also have a number of picture books coming out in the next two years with Knopf and Chronicle. As well as a number of story drafts in the pipeline.
And here are some upcoming events:
- A spot on the Drew Barrymore show (Nov. 16)
- Boulder Children’s Book Festival (Nov. 12)
- Moderating a panel on Middle Grade and Marvelous: Character who will Steal your Heart for the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival (Dec 10)
APP: That is wonderful! I look forward to all of them!
And now for the giveaway! Karla and her publisher have generously agreed to give away a copy of LOTERIA, with beautiful illustrations by Dana Sunmar, to one lucky winner – U.S. entries only please.