This has been a full week, but I promise, today I get to introduce you to another picture book that is worth reading about.
Alexandra Alessandri is a Colombian American poet, children’s author, and Associate Professor of English at Broward College. Her poetry has appeared in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, Atlanta Review, and YARN. Her picture book debut (which we are talking about today) Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! released October 1, 2020 from Albert Whitman & Company. It will be followed by Isabel and Her Colores Go to School in fall 2021 from Sleeping Bear Press. Alexandra lives in Florida with her husband and son. You can learn more about her at her website.
“Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela!” is more than just another holiday book. It is a story about a young girl who becomes painfully shy while visiting new relatives. They celebrate with many customs and foods that are familiar to her and she finds the courage to participate. I personally am unfamiliar with Columbian culture and I was glad for the opportunity to learn more about it (especially because my dearly loved cousin’s wife is from Columbia). I also love to see children from other cultures feel seen.
Welcome to my blog Alexandra!
Me: You have a picture book published this year and one coming out next year. Can you tell us about your writing journey? What made you want to write picture books?
Alexandra: My writing journey has been quite the road trip, with many unexpected turns and detours and maybe a flat tire or two. I didn’t start with the intention of writing picture books. I focused on poetry for most of my life. When my dad passed, I ventured into memoir. I needed to write, but I was still finding my voice and place.
After my son was born, I spent countless hours reading picture books to him, and that’s when I started falling in love with the form. I loved watching my son get hooked on books the way I did as a kid, but I was also intrigued by the way art and words worked together to weave a story. I tend to be a visual person, and I really responded to this marriage of image and text. Plus, picture books reminded me of poetry, with their conciseness and attention to language.
UCLA Extension Writer’s Program classes introduced me further into the world of children’s literature and young adult fiction, and that was the pivotal moment where I shifted to writing for children with the intent to publish. I had some fantastic instructors who encouraged me to keep writing, and I loved experimenting with the different forms of storytelling. There, I also learned about SCBWI and I connected with my local chapter, where I went on to make friends, find critique partners, and meet my agent, Deborah Warren.
It took several years to sell a manuscript. I almost quit a time or two. But, with a little luck and a lot of community, I sold my first two picture books within a year of each other. Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela!, illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonda, released this October from Albert Whitman, and Isabel & Her Colores Go to School, illustrated by Courtney Dawson, releases from Sleeping Bear Press in fall 2021.
Me: You are also an incredible poet. I love finding another poetic soul who loves picture books like me! Did you find that writing poetry helped you to write picture books?
Alexandra: Thank you so much—I love that you’re a poet, too! I do find that writing poetry serves to inform many of the choices I make when writing picture books. Both poetry and picture books require precision of language, for each word to be measured and focused, so my years spent writing poetry have, I think, helped shaped the way I tackle picture books. Poetry has also helped me find my voice in children’s projects!
With poetry, I pay close attention to imagery, word choice, and rhythm, and I find myself doing the same in picture books. I also love imagery and figurative language, two areas that are integral in poetry and that make their way into my stories. Many times, I write picture book in lines and stanzas, focusing on the musicality of the words and weaving in alliteration, onomatopoeia, and other sound elements to create certain impressions. Even when I’m not writing picture books in stanzas (my debut isn’t written this way), I still focus on sound. After all, poetry and picture books both beg to be read aloud!
Me: I love that! Where did the idea for this story come from? Is the character of Ava based on yourself (who also admits to being shy, loving buñuelos, and traveling to Colombia to visit family)?
Alexandra: Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! resulted from a mashup of different ideas, and in some ways, Ava did, too. I am 100% shy and an introvert, and I have memories of being in Colombia, in my uncle’s farm, and clinging to my mom because I was too shy.
Like Ava, I’m an only child with a large extended family—my mom is the eldest of 11 and my dad was the 4th of 6. Most family gatherings involved meeting new relatives. I grew up visiting family in Colombia every few summers, though I’ve never been during New Year’s. Still, every holiday season, we gathered in South Florida with those who lived nearby. My uncles brought guitars. We sang and danced. We ate lots of yummy traditional foods, and we even had an Año Viejo every year. And, like Ava, I most definitely love buñuelos! I have wonderful recollections of waking up during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays to my mom making buñuelos in the kitchen.
In 2018, I participated in Storystorm and discovered I really wanted to capture some of my most cherished New Year’s Eve traditions in a story, including the food, fun superstitions, and Año Viejo. I just wasn’t sure what the story problem would be or who the story would be about.
Then, that New Year’s Eve, we celebrated with some friends, and their very shy little girl kept hiding behind her mom. It wasn’t until the fireworks swirled that she squealed and bounced and really came out of her shell. I remember telling her, “You found your voice!” and thus the story pieces all came together. I sat down soon after and the story poured out of me. This was probably one of the quickest first drafts I’d ever written!
Me: You made some very interesting choices in your story. You didn’t explain Spanish words or things (although there is a glossary at the back for some of them). You just let them be and let the story explain them as it went along. You also mention tons of food I’d never heard of (and I’m dying to know more about, like bocadillos!), but there were no recipes at the end of the book. Were these conscious choices? Was that something you or the editor decided?
Alexandra: Bocadillos are some of my favorite sweets! They are a paste made of guava pulp and panela, which is unrefined whole cane sugar. They vary in denseness and consistency. Sometimes, they’re wrapped in banana leaves. Sometimes, they’re filled with arequipe (a caramel spread). Either way, they’re so delicious.
I tried to weave in context clues for all the Spanish, so that even readers who didn’t speak Spanish would be able to understand their meaning. I also wanted to include a glossary so readers could find more detailed definitions. In some cases, like the idioms, I added a little more of a direct translation within the context of the scene. However, I didn’t want to outright define every word in the text because it didn’t ring true to the story or the characters. Ava is in a place where everyone speaks Spanish, and even if she’s not 100% fluent, she understands much of what’s being said without needing others to translate (this is mostly true for my son). So this interplay with English and Spanish would be very natural to Ava, a second-generation American.
As for the recipes, I have a free resource for teachers and parents that includes a teacher’s guide and activities for families, including a recipe for buñuelos and a craft for making an Año Viejo! These can be found both on my website.
Me: Addy Rivera Sonda’s illustrations in this book are wonderful. Did you communicate with her at all during the creation of them? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Alexandra: I love Addy’s illustrations so much! They’re vibrant and colorful and absolutely adorable. They really capture the cultural aspects of the story, but also its festive mood. I didn’t communicate with her during the creation, but I did know her style from her portfolio and I trusted she would get the heart and feel right—and she did!
One of my favorite surprises in the illustrations was Addy’s addition of the outside scenes. Whenever I wrote about the farm setting, I mostly focused on the interior of the house. In her illustrations, though, Addy brought some of those scenes outside and they were perfect! They really captured the beauty of the mountains, landscapes, and farm animals, which added a wonderful layer to the story.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Alexandra: Prepare yourself with heaps of patience. Be persistent. Find your community. Learn more. Take workshops and/or read craft books. Write, write, and write some more! But also, don’t be afraid to experiment with different forms because it’s all interconnected. What you learn in one genre will absolutely help you in another.
Me: This story is full of specific details about the Colombian traditions surrounding the New Year. What is your favorite New Year’s tradition now as an adult? Is that the same as when you were a child?
Alexandra: These days, I’m lucky if I manage to stay up until midnight—ha! We don’t have big bashes the way we used to when I was a kid (we don’t live as close anymore), but every few years we do get together and I look forward to them. My aunts still make an Año Viejo. But I would say that my favorite tradition is that of ushering in the new year with family. Everything else is just icing on the guava cupcake.
Oh my goodness. Guava cupcakes! They sound delicious too! Thank you again for stopping by my blog Alexandra.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this story, I highly recommend tracking it down. Not only is it full of customs that you might be unfamiliar with, but this is a story with great heart. The character of Ava will grab your heart strings and won’t let go until you too are celebrating with her.