I’m very excited to welcome Cuban-American author Adrianna Cuevas to the blog today to talk about her debut middle-grade novel The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez.
What her book is about: Nestor Lopez is a Cuban American boy who has to use his secret ability to communicate with animals to save the inhabitants of his town when they are threatened by a tule vieja, a witch that transforms into animals.
Adrianna, thanks for joining us on the MUF blog! So, this is your first middle grade novel–have you always wanted to write an MG novel?
I was a Spanish and ESOL teacher for 16 years and I taught all grades K-12 at some point during my career. The hormonal tornado of silliness and maturity in intermediate and middle school made it my absolute favorite ages to teach. I knew when I started writing I wanted to gear my stories toward those amazing middle grade readers. As my own son approached that age and I wanted to write stories for him, it was a natural fit.
Which authors have inspired your writing style and why?
I don’t really think I have a writing style, unless praying and hoping for the best is considered a style. I enjoy reading fast-paced books filled with strong voices, humor, and heart. I aim to write stories that fit my reading preferences. Recently, I’ve enjoyed Count Me In by Varsha Bajaj, From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks, and Just South of Home by Karen Strong.
There’s a slight chance I was sitting in a high school faculty meeting four years ago when I started scribbling story ideas to soothe my miniscule attention span. My son loves to ask hypothetical questions like “What if you could have any Pokémon as your pet?” or “What if you could have any superpower you wanted?” and he’s also completely obsessed with zoology. So I started with “What if you could talk to animals?” I’d love to say that Nestor’s ability to speak to animals has a deeper significance, like Gatsby’s green light shining across a bay, but it doesn’t. I just thought it would be fun. How else was I going to fit so many poop jokes in a story without creating a sarcastic, potty-obsessed raven?
Do you have experience as a military child, moving from school to school? Why was this a big part of Nestor’s life and how do you think it affects him?
Although I’m not a military kid, my husband had several deployments as an Army MP early in our marriage so many of the experiences in the book, such as Nestor’s aversion to military reunion videos and his mom mistaking ROTC students for a mortuary affairs detail, stem directly from that time.
In trying to make Nestor a fully realized character, I felt that adding this element provided depth and emotion to the story. And students from military families, particularly Latinx families, don’t get to see themselves in many stories. Twenty percent of the Armed Forces are Hispanic and it was important to me to represent this.
Can you tell me about the journey from first idea to finding a publisher?
I finished the first draft of Nestor in a few months and entered it into Pitch Wars in 2017. I was accepted and mentored by the incredible Jessica Bayliss who helped me fine-tune my world-building and character arcs. During that time, I also attended my local SCBWI conference in Austin and pitched the manuscript to Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary. I signed with Stefanie and completed further revisions. She helped me find the heart of the manuscript and was critical in making it the story it is today. We went on sub in October of 2018 and the manuscript sold to FSG/Macmillan two months later.
What has been your favorite part of the process?
My favorite part of the process has been meeting other authors who geek out about stories and writing as much as I do. Finding people who are passionate about the same things I am and enjoy building each other up has been a great gift.
Also, seeing young readers react with excitement and enthusiasm to something that just existed as a silly story for so long in my mind has been incredibly satisfying. A class of fifth graders in north Texas read an arc of Nestor and their teacher told me the whole class gasped at the climax of the story. Mission accomplished!
Was there a particularly difficult part of the novel to write? Why was it so difficult? How did you get through it?
My husband and I had been married 10 months when he was called up for his first deployment. I was living far away from family in a town where I didn’t feel like I belonged. Having to revisit those emotions in the process of writing Nestor was a challenge but it made for some great conversations between my husband and I. We were able to share our stories with our son as well who was born after my husband got out of the Army. Veterans are sometimes reluctant to share their experiences so I was grateful that writing this story allowed us both to open up to each other.
What do you hope readers will see in Nestor Lopez and find in this story?
I hope that readers will find escape in an exciting story, laughter in silly moments, and a reminder that your idea of home may not be what you expect. And if they crave Cuban food after they’re done reading, I accept full responsibility.
Was it important for you to represent your heritage in this novel, and why?
Most authors draw from personal experiences to inform their writing. My Cuban heritage is just one of the many elements of my life that shape my stories. I’m not running into kidlit waving a Cuban battle flag and screaming ‘Azúcar!’ Well, maybe I am a little. It’s only because I’m proud of who I am and of my family. I’m also the proud wife of a veteran and the proud mother of a kid who has unabashedly embraced his weirdness. I’m writing who I am.
And if a young Cuban-American kiddo reads my stories and chuckles, “Me, too,” then I’ve done my job as an author.
And did you find many characters you could relate to as a young reader? How has this shaped your writing?
Growing up in Miami, a city dominated by Cuban culture, as a bicultural, white-presenting latina, afforded me the privilege of not being overly affected by the lack of Cuban-American characters in stories. This is why I am now passionate about using my privilege to boost authors who are enhancing authentic representation in children’s literature. So, hey, now would be a great time to add How to Make Friends With the Sea by Tanya Guerrero, Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen by Sarah Kapit, Ana on the Edge by A.J. Sass, and Éfren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros to your reading list!
Thank you Adrianna! Look out for The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez, which is set to release on May 12, 2020. To find out more about Adrianna and her debut MG novel, visit: https://adriannacuevas.com.