LitDish: Ten Questions With Isabel Quintero
Isabel Quintero is a multi-genre award-winning author. Her Children’s/Young Adult works
include Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos Press, 2014)(YA), Ugly Cat & Pablo, illustrated by Tom Knight (Scholastic Press, 2017)(Chapter Book), Ugly Cat & Pablo and the Missing Brother, illustrated by Tom Knight (Scholastic Press, 2018)(Chapter Book) and My Papi Has a Motorcycle, illustrated by Zeke Peña (Kokila, 2019)(Picture Book). Isabel also has several projects forthcoming from Kokila: Golden State (YA), Martinez Paranormal Services (Middle Grade), and Mama’s Panza (Picture Book).
Gabi, a Girl in Pieces garnered numerous awards, including the 2015 William C. Morris Award for Debut YA Novel, the 2015 Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, and the California Book Award Gold Medal for Young Adult (2015). My Papi Has a Motorcycle has also received multiple recognitions, such as the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Award, the Pura Belpré Illustration Honor Award, and the 2020 Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award.
Isabel’s graphic novel, Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, illustrated by Zeke Peña (Getty, 2018) was commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum and won the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction award. Isabel’s shorter work appears in several anthologies, such as Come On In: 15 Stories About Migration and Finding Home, edited by Adi Alsaid (Inkyard Press, 2021). Her poetry is found in As Us Literary Journal, the James Franco Review, Huizache, and many other publications.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Isabel earned from California State University, San Bernardino a BA in English (concentration in literature) and an MA in English Composition. For the last 23 years, she has worked in education and is currently a faculty member of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing program.
She was born and raised in the Inland Empire of Southern California, where she currently lives and writes. It was a pleasure speaking with her about her books and her writing process.
- Most of your current books, as well as your forthcoming ones, are geared toward children and young adults. Why is this your most-chosen audience?
Writing for young people is a privilege. When you write for them you have to be hopeful because your audience still has a lot of living to do. When a kid reads my work I feel lucky that they read my words, that they entered a small world I created for a little bit. Maybe, if I’m really lucky, a reader saw themselves in my work or something resonated with them and they let me know, or they don’t–either way what an absolute privilege to be let in someone’s life like that.
Also, my work for young people happens to be my most published work, but I do write for adult audiences as well but most of that work is poetry and essay, and the beginnings of other projects. I just love writing stories and hope to write in as many genres and for as many audiences as I can.
- Since you’ve written for every age group, how difficult is it switching between these groups, especially if you’re simultaneously working on projects for different audiences?
Yeah, I think it all has to do with respecting the audience. It was easier when I worked as an elementary school librarian that’s for sure, but I still do my best to stay accurate. I have to say one of the perks of being a parent who writes for young people is that it’s nice to have a young person in the house. Ha. I get to see him go through all the stages and that’s a first-hand account that you can’t beat. He’s already inspired so many picture books. For books with teen or tween or kid protagonists I research either watching stuff kids watch or music they listen to or books they read–intel gathered from friends with kids, or I talk to friends’ kids and run ideas past them. I’ve also asked on social media and taken polls.
- What is your writing process like? Are you a pantser or a plotter?
Ha. You caught me at a moment where I’m changing my religion from devout panster to plotter. Though, the story will still change as I’m writing. I had to change my ways because I have a kid now and my writing time is limited. I outlined a middle grade book I’m writing and let me tell you, my life has changed for the better.
My writing process is a lot of procrastination but also a lot of thinking about what I’m writing. I may think about a story for months without writing anything down, or maybe I write a few notes about it or a title, but then suddenly when it clicks, I’ll sit down and the first draft may come easily. This is true when I write picture books and for like the first few chapters of a longer book.
- Can you describe your writing environment?
Lately I’ve just been writing at home due to the pandemic and I really miss writing in coffee shops and other places. I’m slowly getting back out there. So most writing days I’ll sit at my desk and either look at the outline I’ve written and go from there (my outlines are basically just chapter summaries in notes that make sense only to me) or I’ll research and take notes. Days vary depending on what I’m working on.
- In Gabi, your main character mentions the power of writing and how it changed her life. Throughout the novel, she uses writing in multiple healing ways, such as helping her deal with grief, and as a means of connecting with her true self instead of always conforming to others’ expectations. As an author, how did the power of writing change your life, and what message do you hope your readers will take away that they can apply to their lives?
Writing has changed my life in so many unexpected ways. I’ve told the story so many times about how I wanted to be a high school English teacher but when I tried it it was terrible for both me and my students. I have always been a writer but had never taken myself seriously. Then when the English teacher dream burst I went back to school and was getting my M.A. in Composition. I took intro to poetry with the late, amazing and generous Julie Paegle and she really encouraged me to take it seriously. And I did. I became more disciplined and eventually joined a local creative writing group. Doing that made me feel more myself than I ever had. It was liberating and it was all I thought about. I wrote at work, at home, at the doctor’s office–anywhere. Poetry though, not fiction yet. But when I was able to get into prose, applying what poetry had taught me, it was like I’d found my voice in a way that I’d never felt before.
Writing also helps me understand the world around me, my doubts, my insecurities–past and present. I think writing for young people for me is a way of saying to them, “I see you. I see us. And our stories are beautiful and worth telling.” I hope that readers are able to relate in some way to the books, that my work opens up or adds to ongoing conversations, and if nothing else, I hope they’re able to at least enjoy a good story.
- Gabi deals with multiple difficult teen issues and rites of passage, such as teen sex, pregnancy, and abortion; parental abuse and addictions; body image anxieties, and the reality of how female teens are treated differently than their male counterparts. What motivated you to directly address these important topics and did you encounter any resistance from your publisher, parents, or gatekeepers about this content?
I just wanted to write about being a teen in the Inland Empire. The book is loosely based on my teen years and so there’s a lot that I pulled from there. I wanted to see a teen like I had been in a book. Not a poor Mexican from the wrong side of the tracks gone astray, but a regular kid who’s trying to figure out who she is.
I didn’t really feel pushback until recently. I should say that there were always comments in Good Reads or in different reader reviews or the comments section of an NPR article about the book. I was used to that but I wasn’t used to the outright banning and fear that people are coming for not only my book, but so many other books as well. The fear revolves around the sex in the book, usually. The book has been called pornographic but obviously because those critics have not read the book.
- Your Ugly Cat chapter books are laugh-out-loud funny as two unlikely friends go on adventures that get them in trouble. Gabi also has instances in which humor is juxtaposed with both lighter times and deeper, darker moments. Why is humor an important element in your writing and how do you see it emotionally connecting the readers to the stories?
Because I’m Mexican. Ha. Honestly, part of it I think is cultural. Mexicans laugh at/with everything, even death, but also who doesn’t like to laugh? If I can get readers to laugh, maybe they’ll keep reading. Maybe a kid who thought reading was not their thing decides that they hadn’t found the right book and turns out they loved reading. That’s been my experience as a writer and also as an elementary school librarian.
- In the Ugly Cat series and in Gabi, the text is formatted in purposeful ways to help tell the story. In Ugly Cat, each character’s dialogue has its own font and style so it’s easy to identify who’s talking. In Gabi, there’s the use of bold typeface and all-caps words. Who made the decisions to incorporate these styles and variances and what were the reasons?
In Ugly Cat most of those decisions were made by my editor, though I got input on them. In Gabi, those decisions were mine. I want to have an introspective reason as to why I made those decisions but really it’s what the story needed so that I could tell the story I wanted to, and so my readers could feel like they were really reading Gabi’s journal.
- In your kids’ books (told primarily in English), you sprinkle Spanish words and phrases throughout. The English/Spanish transitions are easy to follow and create a rich cultural reading experience. How did you come to write these books in a bilingual format? Were there challenges in deciding which words to translate and where to position them?
I wrote the books with English and Spanish because that is how I talk, that is how I experience the world, and that is how a lot of my readers also experience the world. I approach that bilingual aspect of my writing like I do the rest of my writing and decisions about what words to use or deciding on tone or voice. I ask myself, “Does it make sense?” And then I go from there.
- What advice can you offer emerging/upcoming children’s/YA authors? Also, was there any advice you received that was particularly helpful in your writing?
Advice is always hard to give but for me sticking to the stories I want to tell, keeping to my truths and who I am versus following trends or trying to be something I am not, has served me well. Write your stories.
There has been a lot of advice that has helped me. The late great Michele Serros told me (when I asked her advice about Gabi) that my book was my baby and that no one else was going to care for my baby like I would; it meant I had to stand up and speak out for it. I had to really believe in it and do what I thought was best regardless of what others told me. I think that was the best advice I’ve gotten.
Gail Vannelli retired as an attorney and now writes children’s/YA fiction. She has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her Post-MFA Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s won several Writer’s Digest awards for her fiction. Her recent work has appeared in Cynsations, where she’s a news reporter and writer, and in Lunch Ticket, where she’s been a lead editor, assistant editor, interviewer, and blogger. She’s the founder of Kids Story Studio, a free kids story writing class.