Simply 7 with Alexandra Alessandri–“Isabel and Her Colores Go to School”

I know, I know.  Teachers everywhere are cringing that school supplies are already on sale at stores.  *sigh*  School is coming, as it does every year.  That’s why stories about the first day of school are an evergreen topic, just like today’s picture book with a return guest.

2019_Headshot1Alexandra Alessandri has visited my blog once before.  Her first picture book came out last year. She is a Colombian American poet, children’s author, and Associate Professor of English at Broward College. She currently lives in Florida with her husband and son.  You can learn more about her at her website.

CoverISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL is her second picture book.  It’s a sweet story about a young girl, Isabel, who speaks Spanish fluently.  She is preparing for her first day of school where most of the other children will be speaking English.  She worries she won’t be able to communicate or be accepted.  This is a story that should be included in every teacher’s classroom and in every collection of stories read to young students just starting the school year.  I know many of my own students would appreciate this book!

But the plot isn’t the only thing that makes this book shine.  What makes it so amazing is the fact that it uses beautiful words in two different languages!  It is the first truly bilingual picture book I’ve seen set up like this, and you can tell Alexandra is a poet because the text sings.  Each page has a set of English text for the English reader AND Spanish text for the Spanish reader.  Brilliant!

Welcome back Alexandra.

Me: ISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL is similar to your previous picture book FELIZ NEW YEAR, AVA GABRIELA in that there is a very nervous and anxious little girl as the main character in both.  Is that character based on you or someone else you know?  Was your first day of school much like Isabel’s?

Alexandra: I’ve definitely realized that my characters share similar social and emotional traits, and I suppose part of it is that these are emotions that resonate with me or that I’ve lived with, and I know they are emotions that many kids and adults face.

In Isabel and Her Colores Go to School, Isabel is based on me and her story is inspired by my experience of starting kindergarten in New York. My parents spoke only Spanish at home, so when I started school, I didn’t know how to speak English. This led to me getting literally lost in the hallways of my school! I’m grateful for a kind teacher who found me weeping and reunited me with my class. While Isabel’s story is slightly different, I tapped into the anxiety and feelings of being lost, which were very much a part of my own story.

Me: Aww!  I’m so sorry that happened.  I can imagine things like that happening to other kiddos who don’t speak the language of their schools.  Your descriptions using colors in this story, like Mami’s voice being “soft and amber like a ripened mango,” are so beautiful!  What gave you the idea to associate colors with language?

Alexandra: Thank you so much! When I started brainstorming this story, I didn’t immediately think about the colors, but, as I wrote, I asked myself: What would English and Spanish sound like to Isabel? What images would those sounds conjure up? For Isabel, Spanish would remind her of home, which would include the greens of the mountains, the brilliant blues of rivers, and the pinks, yellows, and purples of her mom’s flowers. Because English sounds different and even strange to her, and because she might associate it with fear (i.e. not being able to understand anyone or make friends because of the language divide), it might sound like a storm. This led to an exploration of color. As I wrote and revised, I looked for ways to strengthen this and make it more purposeful.

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Me: Once again, you made some very interesting choices for the language in this story.  You didn’t explain Spanish words (although there is a glossary at the back of the book).  You just let them be and let the story explain them as it went along.  This reinforced Isabel’s language barrier in a very subtle way.  And yet, there is also a Spanish version of the text on every page.  That’s wonderful!  It makes the book truly bilingual.  Was that something you or the editor decided?   

Alexandra: Having the story be truly bilingual, with both English and Spanish, is a dream come true. And I’m so grateful that my brilliant editor had that vision and made it happen. I wrote the book in Spanglish, which is what comes most naturally to me, but I’m excited about the possibilities this will bring to readers, especially English language learners! An added bonus is that my mom was able to read and fully understand this book because of the Spanish text, which was an incredibly moving moment.

Me: I love that!  Your website says your favorite colors are pink, purple, and yellow.  These are the same colors that Isabel loves and associates with Spanish, the language she also loves.  However, my favorite color blue is associated with storms in the story by Isabel.  Is this just your color preference working its way into the story, or is there some cultural significance to this?

Alexandra: I actually love many colors! Though it’s true that pink, purple, and yellow are current favorites, blue was a favorite for many years, and I still really love it.

A lot of the color associations in the story are deeply connected to how Isabel feels or what the sound/language conjures up. For Isabel, the “stormy blues and blizzard whites” are very specific shades of blue that would elicit images of storms (gray-blue and gray-white tones) because she’s connecting the sounds of English to something scary, like feeling lost. But there are other shades of blue that Isabel likes, like aquamarine or teal—which she brings in at the end—or even the blues one might see in seas, rivers, or skies.

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Me: Courtney Dawson’s illustrations in this book are wonderful.  The use of colors and swirls throughout the story are stunning.  Were there any illustration surprises for you?  What was your favorite illustration?

Alexandra: It’s so hard to choose a favorite—I adore all of Courtney’s illustrations and feel so lucky Isabel and Her Colores was in her hands! I loved how she captured Isabel’s emotions in color. One of my favorites is when Isabel feels “as small and lost as a colibrí [hummingbird] without its flowers.” She combination of the darker tones juxtaposed with the pinks and reds is stunning, and the wilted flowers and hummingbird feel poignant. I can feel Isabel’s despair in the art. I also love the illustrations with Mami and with her new friend, Sarah.

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Me: I love those as well!  I sense a theme in both of your picture books of “don’t be afraid to try new things; they can turn out better than you imagine.”  Why is this an important message you want to share with young readers?

Alexandra: Embracing new things can be so scary, and I think it’s important to learn to take that leap of faith because sometimes, what’s waiting on the other side is so much more incredible than you could’ve hoped for. And, if it’s not, you’ve learned and grown in your attempt. This has certainly been true this past year and a half, as the pandemic forced me to try new things that I’d been terrified to try beforehand (Zoom! Videos! Instagram live!).

Me:  Wow!  No joke!  Me too.  Now that you’ve had two picture books published, what’s one thing you’ve learned about the process that you wish you would’ve known before?  What tidbit of knowledge would share with new writers and/or illustrators?

Alexandra: I think something I’ve learned about the process is that there’s no one right way of doing things, and just when you think you’ve figured out how everything works, you might get thrown a curveball. I’ve also learned that there’s only so much you can control, so the things you can’t (hello, pandemic!), you just have to roll with. That’s something I’d share with new writers and illustrators. Learn all you can—keep learning even when you’ve signed with an agent and sold books—and remain flexible. You won’t be able to control all aspects of publishing, so focus on what you can control.

Wow, great advice.  Thank you for stopping by my blog again Alexandra.

Thank you so much for hosting me again on your blog!

Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to read this book, you have to check it out.  The text sings with lyrical beauty and the illustrations flow and surround you with color.  This is one you won’t want to miss.

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