Pat Mora Talks with Roger

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Sponsored by
Magination Press, Books for Kids from the American Psychological Association


On the occasion of the publication of her first picture book with Magination Press, My Singing Nana, Pat Mora and I talk grandmothers, empanadas, rejection, and what Pat calls “book joy.” Yay for book joy, yay for Pat, and yay for El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day), a holiday celebrating children and books that Pat founded in 1996. ¡Escucha!

Roger Sutton: Growing up, did you have a grandmother on the scene?


Pat Mora: Yes, both a grandmother and a great-aunt, who was like a second grandmother. I’m working on a young person’s version of my family memoir, House of Houses, and I’m revisiting those dear people: my maternal grandmother, who lived with us much of the time, and my great-aunt. She never married, and she called us her lobitos, her little wolves. We all called her Lobo.

RS: Growing up, I had three maiden aunts from Ireland who lived in an apartment across the street from church. We’d visit them every Sunday after Mass. I had grandparents, obviously, but they were gone by the time I showed up. What does that give a child, a grandparent?

PM: I like to believe that having grandparents gives children an extra sense of security. My grandmother was a very quiet person. She did not have a blessed life. Her parents died when she was young and she was adopted by wealthy relatives in Mexico. Her father was a Spanish sea captain, and she had red hair, so she felt like she stood out. She was always sort of shy, but she was very caring. If I was home sick from school, she would prop me up in bed and bring me hot tomato soup. And then she’d just sit there and pat my hand..

RS: Do you see her in your singing nana in this picture book?

PM: No — that’s a great question. The nana in my book is a different type. She’s of a different era. She’s a spunky one. I would say my grandmother was a dear one.

RS: I understand the difference. I remember, and you probably do too, in children’s books in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a rebellion against all the nice old grandmas who made cocoa, had their hair in a bun, were plump, etc. We started seeing hip grandmas — grandmas on motorcycles.

PM: I certainly never had a grandma on a motorcycle. Neither will my granddaughter have a grandma on a motorcycle.

RS: What kind of a grandmother are you, then?

PM: I try to be a good guide. We have one granddaughter, Bonny, and she’s going to be our only one. She calls us Cita and Cito, short for Mamacita and Papacito. I think she knows that we love her madly, and with both of us she feels really safe. She loves to pick on my husband. We do a lot of FaceTiming.

RS: My grandkids will not sit still for that.

PM: No? How old are they?

RS: Ten and seven.

PM: Mine’s six. We don’t live near her, so we started FaceTiming when she was four. She was on last night, and I finally had to say, “Darling, Cita and Cito are going to relax a little bit now.” She likes to show us everything in her room. She did read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? aloud to us a couple of times. That was a highlight for me.

RS: That’s your mission, Pat, isn’t it?

PM: It is — for her and for kids who may not be experiencing book joy the way you and I did. It’s a huge part of who I am.

RS: For a lot of people, even though they’re in the right environment for reading — with caring teachers, librarians, parents who read — they just don’t want to read. I don’t know how much we can do to reach those kids, beyond teaching basic reading competence. Don’t you think there are some people who just don’t like to read?

PM: I do, but I think it’s tied to society’s emphasis on noise and glitz. We only watch PBS at home, so I don’t really see television ads, but if I’m at somebody’s house and I see ads on TV, I’m always sort of stunned at the speed, the color, and the music. It’s entertainment. Whereas reading requires—

RS: Active involvement.

PM: Yes.

RS: If you don’t turn the page, nothing’s going to happen.

PM: That’s really going to be a dull book.

RS: You should be proud of yourself, because Día, which you started almost twenty-five years ago, is really an established thing, and now independent of you.

PM: You are very generous to say that. I will be candid to say I don’t feel that way yet, but that’s what I hope for — that little by little I can step back, and my wonderful web person Bobbie Combs and I can just say, “Okay, it’s out there on its own.” I do think we’ve done a much better job reaching librarians thanks to partnership with ALA, particularly ALSC. But I don’t know how many schools are where we wish they were, or how many teachers, really.

RS: I’m probably going to get hate mail for this, but I think when it comes to spreading the gospel of reading for the book joy of it, that librarians are more into it than teachers. My background is as a children’s librarian, so obviously I’m biased, but I feel like librarians are more concerned with the individual freedom of reading, rather than reading to teach a lesson. My Singing Nana does have a lesson — it does have information about what to do if a grandparent is starting to appear forgetful. But at the same time, a kid who didn’t even have a grandparent could read and enjoy this book, don’t you think?

PM: Well, I hope so! I completely agree with you about librarians. It’s probably due in part to the training — how people are taught to be teachers versus taught to be librarians. And many teachers are so burdened by those tests. I wanted to grow up to become a teacher, and that’s what I did. When I was a child I liked the idea of that power, of being at the front of the room. I quickly figured out that everybody listened to that person.

RS: Whack your ruler on the side of the desk and they all fall in line.

PM: I would sit there very docilely in class and think, Wow, that’s nice. I’d like to be up there teaching.

RS: But I would rather read than do pretty much anything else. Is that also true of you?

PM: Reading is one of the great joys in my life. I also love presenting, because it’s another way for me to share some of my beliefs.

RS: Which, in turn, were formed by reading.

PM: To a great extent. In fact, it would be impossible without that.

RS: Because that’s how ideas are communicated.

PM: Ideally, we're constantly learning.

RS: Or eating! Can you cook Grandma’s cherry empanadas?

PM: I sure can. I make them with my granddaughter — she has a chef’s hat she likes to wear, and an apron. She’s very bossy, as only children can be. I would say, “This is the way we’re going to do it.” And she’d go, “Cita, Cita, no. Stop.” It was the longest process.

RS: You could get a book out of that, Pat.

PM: Actually, my upcoming book, I Can, is totally based on Bonny. It’s about: I can swim, I can read, I can do all kinds of things.

RS: When you write a book for young children, where are you in relation to that story? Do you feel like you’re writing it for yourself? Do you imagine a particular child when you think about your audience? How does it work for you?

PM: Because I love words, I try to be immersed in the text. I enjoy creating verbal delights. This happens with every book, whether it’s for little ones or teens or adults — I’m trying to listen to the words. I’ve got ideas, and I’m trying to listen to the words and see how I might expand those ideas and follow where the words would lead. And I do a lot of revisions. As a former English teacher, I know that students hate revisions. I love the revision process.

RS: Judy Blume once said she hated writing novels, but she loved revising them.

PM: That's a great line.

RS: What I find amazing about writing — when I’m reviewing a book I might start out with the idea: “Here’s what I think of this book, roughly, in my head.” But then when I write the review, I can find something totally different. Do you find that when you write?

PM: That’s the ideal — when it’s at its best, writing is a process of discovery.

RS: That’s a great way to put it. You’re not just copying something in your head. The act of writing itself changes what’s in your head.

PM: And then, ideally, that little discovery may lead to another one in the next sentence or further down the paragraph. That’s why I love the process. It doesn’t mean I think it’s an easy process, but I love the process.

RS: This picture book started in an interesting place, as it was based on your sister’s experience with your parents. It was an adult situation.

PM: My sister took care of our parents at the end of their lives. My dad came from Mexico at age three during the Mexican Revolution. My mom was born in El Paso. She wasn’t a cook at all, but she made one thing: pineapple upside-down cake.

RS: If you can make one thing, pineapple upside-down cake is a pretty good thing.

PM: It’s not bad. But because she didn’t otherwise bake, and I’ve always had a sweet tooth, I started watching baking shows when I was a little girl. I would copy down the easy recipes. Nana is an invented character in that sense — she wouldn’t be my mother, who didn’t cook, or my grandmother or my sister. I’m really the only one who bakes in the family.

RS: Was Nana the beginning of the story, or was memory loss the beginning of the story?

PM: It was the desire to address this issue for children. I wanted to write a book on this topic that was not a sad book. I’d had the idea for a while, and I went through many drafts. I’d have to look back — way, way back — to see how it first started. And may I say, this manuscript, through the years, received many rejections. Not in its present form, but in its various forms. I believe the topic, even though it isn’t front and center, was off-putting to some editors.

RS: How many years would you say it’s been kicking around?

PM: Maybe eight to ten.

RS: Wow. That is such a great lesson for any writer who reads this interview, don’t you think?

PM: I’d put the rejected stories aside and keep moving. And then all of a sudden I would think, or my agent might say, “Well, what about…?” And then I would go back and start revising.

RS: You certainly are persistent.

PM: I'm persistent. That I am.

Sponsored by
Magination Press, Books for Kids from the American Psychological Association

 

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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