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Five questions for Juana Medina

Photo: Silvia Baptiste

Juana Medina’s 2017 Pura Belpré Award–winning Juana & Lucas (Candlewick, 5–8 years) introduces new readers to a new set of friends, a Colombian girl named Juana (just like the author) and her perro, Lucas. Eleven brief and breezy chapters, copiously illustrated with cheery ink and watercolor pictures, tell about Juana’s life growing up in Bogotá (where “everyone speaks español!”) and about her dream of visiting Spaceland with her familia.

1. Your character is Juana and you are Juana. How much of the story is “true”?

JM: A fair amount of the story is true. There were more characters involved in the real story, but I had to simplify a little. Also, quite unfortunately, the Astroman and Spaceland bit is not true. But I’m hoping someone will take on the task of creating such a place sometime soon.

2. The book is in many ways a love letter to Colombia. What do you miss most about it now that you live in DC?

JM: There are a great number of things I miss about Colombia. I miss the mountains (DC is very flat, compared to the Andean region) and all the delicious fruits you can find there! What I miss most, though, are the friends and family that I don’t get to see very often.

3. How did you decide which words and phrases to include in Spanish? And which phrases to call out in the clever text design?

JM: Because the book is about learning English and the story is told, well, in English…that made things a little complicated at times. So having words in Spanish peppered throughout the book could help remind the reader about the character’s background and give a richer sense of who she is, where she lives, and how she expresses herself.

At the same time, I remember as a child feeling very smart when I could figure things out on my own. I wanted to make sure children could see how they can figure things out just by reading attentively, without the help of an index or by making the content didactic. So the words I chose to use in Spanish can be deciphered by the context or by how similar they are to the English translation.

In terms of the design, I wanted text to serve not just as words but also as form. I wanted it to be dynamic, to help emphasize and/or convey different actions. I also thought that it could be a good way for young readers who may not feel very confident about their skills (yet!) to try reading a few words that pop out…to see if that would get them excited about reading further.

4. Juana gets compared a lot to “spunky girl” heroines such as Ramona (who gets a shout-out in the book) and Clementine. Did you grow up with any similar characters in Spanish-language books?

JM: It’s quite a compliment to have Juana be compared to Ramona and Clementine! Sadly, there weren’t many books with strong female characters while I was growing up. One character I adore  — though she is from a comic strip and not a children’s book — is Mafalda by Quino. Talk about spunk! This sweet and opinionated Argentinian character has touched many generations of South Americans. Other than that, there aren’t many characters I can recall from Spanish-language books from the ’80s and ’90s. Now there are a few very special characters, but there’s plenty more room to tell stories about girls and women!

5. Juana reads under the covers with her emergency flashlight, because “having to turn the lights off and stop reading inmediatamente is definitely an emergency.” We’ve been there! What did you read under the covers as a kid?

JM: I loved reading Jules Verne’s books. The most memorable book I read under the covers was Journey to the Center of the Earth. There was something particularly thrilling about reading about an epic underground journey while taking my own set of risks by reading past bedtime, flashlight in hand, under the covers.

From the May 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book: Summer Reading.

For past years’ summer reading lists from The Horn Book, click on the tag summer reading.

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