Interview: Lila Quintero Weaver

lila_headshotThis month, Lila Quintero Weaver’s sophomore youth literature book, My Year in The Middle (Candlewick Press) was released. Such a figurative title promises much to the reader, doesn’t it? The following interview indicates that Weaver doesn’t fail to deliver. I can’t wait to read this one!

I have my copy but, I thought it would be wiser to interview you now rather than waiting for me to finish the book. Can you clue us in on one or two significant instances in the book?
The story of My Year in the Middle takes place in Alabama in 1970, the academic year when most public schools in the state were desegregated. The main character is Lu Olivera, a sixth-grader from an Argentine immigrant family. One of her early, eye-opening moments comes when she accompanies her best friend to a political rally for george-wallace-wc-9522367-1-402George Wallace, who’s running for a repeat term as governor. Lu believes the rally is a chance to hang out with friends, but she naively fails to anticipate the racism of Wallace’s stump speech and how his words will whip up the crowd. Her unfortunate choice kicks off a cascade of additional missteps and tough consequences. We authors like to make trouble for our characters

What compelled you to write My Year in the Middle?
I was moved to tell a story that I think kids will relate to on the universal level. But it’s a 41p36XG7HEL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_story they may not have heard before, since I write from the perspective of a southern Latinx. Most Latinx characters in children’s books live in major metropolitan hubs or in rural areas in the Southwest. My experience was altogether different. I grew up in a place with few immigrants and in a time that predates the terms Hispanic and Latino/a by several decades. North of Miami, Latinxs in the Deep South constituted such a small demographic group that we essentially fit nowhere. We were caught in the middle. This was one impetus to Lu’s story.

I also wanted to present a clear picture of racism in 1970 and the sort of personal growth this demands of my main character. The setting is the racially explosive era that followed closely on the heels of school desegregation. I didn’t want to shy away from the scope of anti-black reactions going on at that time. This obviously included the ugliness of the Wallace rally, but also degrees of violence that erupted in school settings. Then there were the “softer” forms of racism. In one scene, Lu and her friend Belinda, who is African American, page through a tween magazine and take note that very few people of color appear in the fashion spreads. So in Lu’s world, racial tension boils up inside the classroom, the gym, the cafeteria. It even creeps into friendships that were supposedly solid. Lu has to navigate her place through all of this, but without the benefit of a clear identity of her own. It’s tricky, but once she sees the light, she takes a stand and lets the chips fall where they may.

Is it difficult to relive those years?
The number-one most difficult thing about revisiting that time is realizing that 2018 isn’t that much better. In fact, on some fronts progress has been lost. For example, many public schools are just as segregated now as they were before federal courts forced desegregation. Worst yet, racist rhetoric and attitudes that were common in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but had faded back or gone underground during the intervening decades, have now resurfaced with a vengeance. That is a gut punch.

Had you talked to your family about your childhood before you wrote this?
download-3Yes. I previously wrote and illustrated a graphic memoir that centers on my family’s immigration experience. Because both of my parents were already deceased by the time I started that book, I interviewed my older sisters to gather their stories and confirm or correct my recollections of family history. But writing My Year in the Middle was different. It’s fictional and springs from my own experiences, so my job was to supplement my memories through research.

Do you remember when you first read a book with a Latinx character?
Huh, I’m scratching my head trying to remember an actual title! When I was a child, books featuring Latinx characters were mostly folktales. Don’t get me wrong—folktales can be lovely. But with nothing to balance them out, young readers receive the misimpression that Latinx people existed in the long-ago past and in primitive conditions. That certainly didn’t match my experience. I was born in Buenos Aires, a city of millions, and lived a modern life.+-+737663224_140.jpg

Fast-forwarding to 2000, my youngest daughter was eleven when Esperanza Rising was published. We read it together and loved it. She even wrote a fan letter to Pam Muñoz Ryan and received a postcard in return. That book is the first non-folktale written for children and starring a Latinx character that I remember holding in my hands.

What do you enjoy most about living in Alabama?
As I write this, the thermometer reads 91 degrees, but keep in mind that we never shovel snow and the growing season is long. There is a wealth of natural beauty here, and we’re an easy drive from gorgeous beaches. Also, people outside the region may be surprised to learn that Alabama has a thriving artistic and literary scene, as well as a determined set of social progressives who are trying to make this state a better, more equitable place for everyone.

Our children still face so many oppressive and unjust situations in their lives. What message do you have for them?
That is heartbreakingly true. I want to impress on children that many adults and teens are fighting on their behalf. I hope they see evidence of this in the adults they encounter, whether teachers, librarians, community leaders, parents or caregivers.

As a children’s author, I strive with every sentence I write to connect with such children—kids who are lonely, misunderstood, bullied, oppressed, and who’ve been fed messages of  “you’re less than.” I want these kids to feel seen, accompanied, and cared for. If My Year in the Middle provides even a taste of that connection for any young person, I hope they’ll immediately run out and find more books. I say this because I do believe in the power of stories. Stories can act as sparks to healthy self-reflection. They give all of us who’ve been squeezed into smaller places than we deserve a glimpse of wider possibilities.

Lila Quintero Weaver received her BA from New College at The University of Alabama. Her first book, Darkroom : A Memoir in Black and White (Univ of Alabama), was listed as a 2013 Notable Books for a Global Society book (award sponsored by the Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group International Reading Association) and it was awarded the 2013 Druid Arts Award: Literary Artist given by the Arts Council of Tuscaloosa. The book was also published in Spanish, Cuarto Oscuro. She and her husband live in Alabama.

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