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Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Random House Children’s Books.
In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Maggie Reagan talks to Karla Valenti, author of Lotería and Emma Otheguy, author of Sofia Acosta Makes a Scene.
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Karla Valenti writes stories for and about kids taking readers on journeys steeped in magical realism and philosophical questions. Her storytelling is heavily influenced by her Mexican heritage and layered with ideas and concepts she’s picked up in her many travels around the world. She currently resides in the Chicagoland area with her husband and three kids, two cats, and hundreds of books. Karla writes picture books. She is the creator of the My Super Science Heroes series and Lotería is her debut middle-grade novel. Lotería is available now from Knopf Books for Young Readers.
MAGGIE REAGAN: Karla, thank you so much for joining me.
KARLA VALENTI: Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted.
Well, we’re so excited to have you here. Do you want to kick us off by just telling us a little bit about Lotería and it’s really fascinating cast of characters?
Sure. So I like to introduce Lotería as a philosophical discourse packaged as a middle-grade adventure. The question at the heart of the story is one of free will. Do we have control over our lives, the power to make the decisions that shape us or is everything predetermined? And I basically wrote the book to find the answer. And I started by choosing two equally wise sparring partners, life and death, ancient friends who meet once a year to play a game of Lotería. And Lotería is a game that’s very similar to bingo, but instead of numbers you have images. So you would have your deck of cards that has the images on them. And then tablas, which are grids that have 16 icons on them. And each one of those represents one of these images. So Life and Death meet to play this game. This year, they meet in Oaxaca City, Mexico, and they choose a child to be upon in their game.
That’s our heroine, 11-year-old Clara. Now, if Life wins the game, Clara is gifted a long life. If Death wins, Clara is sent to Death’s domain. And as the game is played, Life flips over the Lotería cards. But the game is not just entertainment because every card that’s flipped has an image on it. And that image unfolds as an event in Clara’s life, pushing her to make certain choices and hopefully prompting the reader to wonder whether these choices are made freely by her, or if they’re inevitable, given Clara’s circumstances. In other words, that she’s actually trapped in the game. So then as Life and Death play this game, they also debate the issue of free will versus determinism. Now Life believes that humans are free to shape their lives. Whereas his companion, not surprisingly considering who she is, Death, believes that everything one does is predetermined and inevitably destined to happen.
So in this way, the Lotería cards take the readers and Clara through Oaxaca City and into this magical kingdom of Las Pozas, where Clara ventures to save her cousin Esteban, who’s been kidnapped by an immortal king who steals the souls of children and all their years so he can live forever. And in the end, I thought I knew where the story was going both in terms of the plot and the philosophical debate, but Clara ended up surprising us—me and Life and Death, and delivered a wholly unexpected twist ending that was as fascinating to write as I hope it is for people to read. So, that’s a little bit of the nutshell.
Does that surprise mean that fate was your final answer?
It’s funny that you mentioned that because I felt very much the way Life and Death probably felt, where you think you’re in control as the author and you’re flipping the cards of your character and you’re guiding her to go where you want her to go and then, surprise! didn’t work out that way. The question of free will doesn’t just play out in the story itself. There was this meta-experience that happened with me about whether I had free will or if I was just fated to write the story as it unfolded.
Is that a question you’re still dealing with?
So, when I started writing the book, I was a hundred percent sure of my position. And then I did the research because of course, right, we have to be smart about what we’re talking about. So I had to research both Life and Death’s arguments, and fortunately, plenty of people before me have thought about this question very much in depth. So there’s a wealth of information out there. And so I would research the position and I would play out a scene and have Life present his arguments, and then Death would present her counter-arguments. And at the end of the scene, I found myself waffling between the two. So even though I entered the book, convinced of my position, as I wrote it, I actually ended up flipping.
So I’m in this place where there isn’t an answer, and Clara did something that blew me away and took me completely by surprise and took us beyond the question. And it freed me, it freed Life and Death, it freed her. I’m not going to tell you what the ending was, cause I hope everybody reads it, but what was so, so charming about this book is that I ended up with more questions as one should, more information, but not necessarily as steadfast in my thinking as I was at the beginning. And isn’t that what we want out of storytelling?
You talk about how you draw from Mexican folklore and obviously did when crafting this story, how much did you pull from established stories and how much of this was your own invention?
Of course, the game Lotería is based on the traditional Mexican game of Lotería and many of the underlying themes and symbolism that I draw on are from traditional Mexican culture and folklore. So for instance, the role of Death, right, of course, nobody wants to die, and death is a sorrowful event. However, symbolically, death plays a very different role in Mexican culture. And I wanted to highlight that. So the movie Coco did a great job of capturing that, that theme, that death is not necessarily viewed as a finality. When our loved ones are gone, they’re not lost, they’re not forgotten. They continue to live on every day in our remembrances, our traditions, our family legacies. So when I crafted Catrina, who is the embodiment of Death, I wanted to portray her in this dual image, both as the skeletal symbol we associate with death, but also this vibrant wise and beautiful woman, which we associate with ongoing life.
And so I think that that is very much a Mexican way of thinking about a concept like death. And then of course, I drew from the tradition of magical realism where your story is planted in reality, but you’re stretching the boundaries of reality a little bit and you’re magicalizing reality, right? So you haven’t necessarily created a completely made up world. You’re just bringing in elements that twist your interpretation of reality: Death and Life walking through town or Catrina converting an old woman into a youthful one, just by the gift of marigolds. As far as the story itself, that was my invention, but it was very much fed and nurtured by the underpinnings of Mexican storytelling.
I thought that illustrations added so much to this book. They were just really fascinating to see kind of interspersed with the story. And I know you’ve written for a picture book audience before. So I’m curious to hear of about what it was like to make that transition to writing for a slightly older audience.
I have found that picture books could almost be harder to write than a novel because you have such little story real estate in which to tell a full story. So picture books, like novels, have a beginning, middle end, you have your goal, you have your challenges, you had your complex plot points, you have a conflict resolution and it all needs to happen in under 500 words. So what that means is that you actually need to be very deliberate in how you pace yourself and how you craft your story and how you structure it, the words that you choose. And so, the discipline of writing picture books, I think has benefited me as a novelist because it really allows me to stay on task to the extent that I can. My challenge here was, really the philosophical side, which I just tend to go into the weeds on that angle.
So I really had to trim back the philosophy bits to make the plot stay on task. As far as the audience, I’ve never written for a specific audience. I really explore an idea and I choose the best format to do that. But I like about the picture book format is the ability to leverage illustrations to tell the story. So even though I’m not an illustrator, many of my picture books have illustration notes to help guide how I see the illustrations pairing with the text. And fortunately, Dana SanMar was able to provide beautiful illustrations for that did a very similar thing. So I’m very grateful that we were able to illustrate Lotería as heavily as we did.
I want to zoom out a little bit and just ask you, how have libraries played a role in your reading or writing life?
I love this question because if I’m a hundred percent honest, library saved my life this last year, and I know I’m not alone in feeling this, but like everybody else, I was desperate for a space in which to lose myself. And fortunately my local library provided just that. Not only do they have a gazillion books, but they’re connected to all the libraries in the area. Any book was available at my fingertips and we definitely took advantage of it. And not just me, I read to my kids, read to my family. One of my favorite things over the past year was family reading time. And by that, I mean, my husband, my high schoolers, my fifth grader, we would sit for two, twice a week and just, and read and read and read and read. So libraries were a saving grace.
And I’ve also been very grateful to all the librarians that have reached out since Lotería has sort of arrived to the scene to tell me how much they love the book. And that has just meant so much to me because really librarians are the ones getting these books in children’s hands. So to hear librarian say that they liked the book and that it means so much to them, that’s what we want.
And when you’re not writing or researching for your writing, what are you reading?
I read voraciously. So I read adult fiction. I love Isabel Allende. I love Markus Zusak and I read a lot of middle-grade fiction, and I also read a lot of books about philosophy and human psychology to help buffer up my ideas when I’m writing my novels.
Thank you so much, Karla, for being here with us and taking the time for chatting today and thank you everyone for listening to the Shelf Care interview.
Thank you for having me.
Emma Otheguy is the author of the middle grade novel Silver Meadow Summer, and several acclaimed titles for young readers. Emma holds a PhD in history from New York University where she focused on colonial Latin America and graduated from Swarthmore College, sold books at an independent bookstore, and taught elementary school Spanish. Sofia Acosta Makes A Scene comes out in January 2022 from Knopf Books for Young Readers.
MAGGIE REAGAN: Emma, thank you so much for joining me today.
EMMA OTHEGUY: Thank you, Maggie. I’m so happy to be here.
Can you start off by telling us a little bit about Sofia and her story?
Sure. So Sofia Acosta is a 10 year old girl living in the New York City suburbs with a family of Cuban ballet dancers. Before coming to the U.S., Sofia’s parents danced with Alicia Alonso, the prima ballerina in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Sofia’s older sister is headed straight to American Ballet Theater. Literally, she’s applying for a prestigious training program with them. And Sofia’s little brother always has a lead in their neighborhood ballet school’s productions.
And Sofia? She has terrible rhythms. She loves the stories and the romance of ballet. She especially loves costume design, sewing rhinestones and sequins, all of that, but she’s not a dancer. And this starts to really matter when her family’s very dear friends from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, people who her parents used to know in Cuba, come to visit them in New York. They come to do a special performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, and Sofia sees how being talented, being exceptional in some way, opens doors for these friends, doors that would otherwise be closed, particularly to immigrants. And it’s fifth grade. It’s a time when a lot is changing socially and Sofia starts to notice in her own community, in this little suburb she’s lived in all her life, microaggressions and a sense that her Latina identity matters more than it used to. And all of this leads Sofia to question, How can she be accepted not as a ballet star, like the other members of her family, but as Sofia?
You have Sofia coming face to face with a lot of difficult realities, especially in regards to immigration, but also just in terms of her own life and when it comes to the friendship she has, and she has to decide where she stands, maybe at the cost of one of those friendships. And this is a lot of serious stuff, but it is also the kind of thing that a lot of kids are facing these days. So can you just give us an overview of how you worked through all of this while you were writing?
Sure. To me, Sofia is facing what, for me as a person has been one of the hardest things to navigate in our current moment, which is that, how do we handle all of our strongly felt and our righteous beliefs that I think many of us have, the things we’re so passionate about? When either our friends don’t agree with us, or maybe our friends don’t even want us to have strongly felt opinions. There’s always that question of, should you talk about political issues or dividing issues at the dinner table? And I think for people like me and maybe for a lot of book people, because we tend to be really passionate, that can be really hard because we feel these things so strongly. And so Sofia has this relationship with her best friend, Tricia, where it’s sort of unspoken that you don’t speak about certain topics.
So for Sofia’s entire life, Tricia has been this person who made her feel a sense of belonging in Pine Hill, in their hometown. Tricia is also Cuban-American, but unlike Sofia, her family is very plugged into what I’ll call the town hierarchy. But then when they get to fifth grade, when Sofia’s family has these two Cuban dancers visit, the issue of immigration drives a wedge in their relationship.
That’s when Sofia becomes brave, because most 10-year-olds, including this 10-year-old, when I was 10, when faced with that reality, they do what I did, which is to shut the heck up, because we all want to survive. We all want to be liked by our friends. We all want to be seen as nice and socially tolerable. And I think we play along. We learn to blend in, that’s certainly what I used to do growing up. But what makes Sofia different is that she starts talking about the things you’re not supposed to talk about. She starts being an immigration advocate. She starts to talk about affordable housing and how that affects immigrants who wants to move to Pine Hill.
So she makes a scene in a town where no one is ever supposed to make a scene. No one’s supposed to rock the boat. And that’s what I think is so important about Sofia. She gives me a lot of bravery sometimes now. When I feel nervous about saying things I feel passionate about, I remember Sofia and how brave she is to speak up.
While Sofia has this really supportive family around her, you talk a lot about how she often feels out of place, and especially when it comes to her ballet dancing. What inspired you here?
So what’s happening with Sofia is that she’s simultaneously realizing that these two spaces where she’s always felt very comfortable, her family and her town. She’s suddenly realizing that she’s a little different from both of those groups. So she doesn’t necessarily fit in. And I think I wrote about that because I’ve always felt out of place myself, even in contexts where you wouldn’t expect it. So Sofia’s family is a really interesting space because she has a great family and it’s very inspired by my family. It’s one of my favorite parts of the book, is just being in Sofia’s family’s house. They have a neighbor who’s four years old and who goes to a half-day preschool and spends all day at the fence between their two yards, watching who’s coming in and out of the house because there are so many relatives, friends, random visitors coming in and out of the house all the time. And this little boy calls their house The Acosta Accordion, because sometimes it’s wide like an accordion and full of people. And sometimes it shrinks to just be Sofia and her immediate family. This is all drawn from my childhood. We had a little preschool neighbor who also used to call our family The Otheguy Accordion. And yet I always felt discomfort growing up. I think a lot of us do, even when we come from families that are warm and wonderful, because I knew two things.
One is that, I knew that my family was great and yet I felt that little tension of not being fully accepted in our community. We were one of very few Latino families where I was growing up. And I always had that sense that the Tricia’s of my hometown were questioning of my belonging and then even within my family, I think so many, I’m a third sibling. Sofia’s in the middle in this book, but I’m the third in my family. And I think that all of us who have close siblings, you love your siblings so much, and yet there’s so much pressure in a family of three to succeed in the same way as your siblings, to live up to your siblings’ achievements. And I think that’s especially true of children of immigrants.
I think that whenever you know that your parents have been through some kind of significant sacrifice, there’s this pressure to make it worth it, to make the sacrifice worthwhile. And I felt that way. I know many other children of immigrants feel that way. So all of these were ways in which I wanted to show Sofia authentically, being someone who has a place and yet doesn’t feel like she quite belongs.
How have libraries played a role in your reading or writing life?
Libraries are really important to me. They’re a big part of my identity and I have shaped what I have become. So I’ll share three moments about libraries in my life. So the first moment is that when I was a kid, there was actually no library in my hometown for a long time. There was no public library, but my dad would take us to the next town over in our county, which did have a public library that we had access to, with milk crates. And my sister and I were each allowed to fill up a milk crate with books and take them home every week. And this was a big event in our lives. One of my cousins, I have a lot of family in Puerto Rico, and one of my cousins who always used to come spend the summer with us, likes to tell the story of the first time she came to the public library with my dad and my sister and I. She lived in San Juan, in a place where she didn’t have access to a public library.
And so the first time she came, my dad was like, go get a book or go get some books. And she went and she dutifully picked out one paperback book. And my dad was like, “No, Amaya, un otro libro.” And she was like, ”Oh, okay.“ And she went and she picked out one more book. And finally, my dad was like, ”No, Amaya, they’re free. You can have as many as you want.“ And so she didn’t have a milk crate, she’s like, ”Both you and Raquel had your milk crates full already.“ So she says, she walked out of there like the mouse in Cinderella who has all the cheese packed under his chin, with just the books up to her chin. And she just could not believe that she was allowed to walk out of that building with as many books as she wanted.
So that’s one of my earliest childhood public library memories, but then also about school libraries, I had the good luck of being the next-door neighbor of my school librarian as a kid. And that was something, because I never felt a lot of homeschool connection in the early years, growing up. And I don’t know whether that was because again, we were living in a town where we were one of very few Latino families. It could have just been because my parents were working or their personal disposition, but I never really had that sense of, people in school understood who my family was. I think people knew we were different, but I never felt really seen. And I mean, I’m a writer, I’m somebody who likes to raise my voice and have people see me and listen to me and pay attention to me. I just always had such a deep desire for that. And yet, my life at home was so separate from school.
And so living next to the school librarian, it just bridged these worlds for me, it felt like to me, the library was this space that existed between home and school because of that. And she would give my mom advice about reading. She was the one who told, my mom was at some point, very alarmed by how many Baby-Sitters Club books we read, particularly my sister, she was just worried about seeing those milk crates come home every week, just full of Baby-Sitters Club books. And my mom says she naively thought, ”Well, how long can this last? She’s filling up a milk crate with them. How many can there be?“ Answer, hundreds. So, our school librarian neighbor was always the one would tell my mom, ”Just let her keep reading them. This is how she learns to love reading. This is how she learns to form an identity as a reader. You do not stop her. You just let her keep reading what she loves.“
And so we always had that connection. And then finally, I wanted to talk about, about my relationship with libraries as an adult. Because I was a PhD historian before I became a children’s author, libraries were when I was in graduate school, certainly in writing my dissertation, libraries were everything. I mean, literally. That’s where you go to get information. And as a writer now, until the beginning of COVID, I did most of my writing in libraries. And being able to write in libraries and have access to stacks while writing is so important to me, because even though I now write children’s books, whether my books are fiction or nonfiction, they’re still informed by real life events and by the history and current realities of the Latina community.
And so, for this book, for example, I read books about the Cuban Nacional Ballet, about the history of dance and Cuba, and certainly for my nonfiction books, of course, I rely very heavily on libraries. And I think that what my early experiences with libraries taught me and what I have carried with me to this day is the idea that libraries are a place to begin. I think it was really impressed upon me from a young age that if want to know something, even if you don’t know where to go, how to get it, what to do, you go to the library and that’s your starting point.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I read a lot middle grade and picture books. I am someone who was just totally seduced by children’s literature early on. I mean, I thought I was going to do other things. And then I really found that I just didn’t care about other things. I cared a lot about children’s books. I care a lot about children’s books. So I read things by friends and colleagues. I read Angela Cervantes, I read Tami Charles. Those are authors who I have the privilege of knowing and whose work I love. And then on the adult side, I read a lot of historical nonfiction. I read a lot of history books. I read monographs. I try to stay in the know about some of the conversations that are happening in Latin American history, since that’s what I studied in graduate school and what I continue to be interested in. So I had this very odd intersection of very, very thick doorstop monographs and children’s books, that’s what I read.
Great. Well, Emma, thank you so much for chatting with me today and thank you everyone for listening to the Shelf Care Interview.
This Shelf Care interview is sponsored by Random House Children’s Books, publisher of Lotería, out on shelves now, and Sofía Acosta Makes a Scene, available January 25th, 2022. Happy reading!
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