L.A. Libros Fest: Interview With Donna Barba Higuera

Llyr Heller, Librarian, Teen'Scape,
Author Donna Barba Higuera and her books - Lupe Wong Won't Dance, The Last Cuentista and El Cucuy is Scared Too!
Donna Barba will be one of the featured performers at the Los Angeles Libros Festival, a free bilingual book festival for the whole family

Donna Barba Higuera grew up in a tiny desert town in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. Rather than wrangling dust devils, she’d spend recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling the library’s dial-a-story over and over again and sneaking into a restricted pioneers’ cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstone for inspiration. Donna lives in Washington State with her husband, four kids, three dogs, and a frog. Higuera has won the Newbery medal, both Pura Belpré medal and honor, PNBA best book of the year award, and the Sid Fleischman award for best children's humor book of the year.

Donna Barba Higuera will be one of the featured authors at the Los Angeles Libros Festival, a free bilingual book festival for the whole family. L.A. Libros Fest will be streamed live on YouTube on Friday, September 23, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. The Festival will be in-person at Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, September 24, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with select Saturday programs streamed live on YouTube.

Our tagline this year is Read, Dream and Celebrate en dos idiomas. How do you think your books and stories help us accomplish this?

Most of the time, like me, my main characters think in both Spanish and English. My Spanish is not as good as it once was. But sometimes, the meaning of what I want to show the reader comes across stronger in Spanish than in English. So, while writing, I might use one word over the other. Sometimes it’s a phrase or saying that might not make sense in English. But I do not translate for the reader, and I do not put the Spanish language in italics. My mind doesn’t see it that way, and I don’t think readers who speak both Spanish and English do either. I am grateful my publisher, Levine Querido, does not change it either. I am welcoming readers to see language the way I do, and the way I think kids who navigate two languages do. But even if a reader is not a Spanish speaker, I think they can get the meaning of what might have been said by what is happening in the story. It is a way to welcome someone to a new language and invite them to try and understand something that might not have felt comfortable to them.

What are some of the things you do to bring to life the world you’ve imagined?

In The Last Cuentista, the main character, Petra Peña, travels to another planet. My imagination was able to soar. I was able to create strange creatures that may be harmless, but could perhaps kill. Petra can only describe the animals and plants in a way she understands, which are comparing them to things from Earth. A small fish that has fins in the shape of butterfly wings. Plants so large they resemble elephant ears. I got to invent an entire planet through Petra’s eyes. It was magical.

What stories inspired you as a young reader?

So many! It was different at different ages. I loved fantasy worlds like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit. But I also loved science fiction, so I loved A Wrinkle in Time.

If your book was turned into a movie/series, who would you cast?

Oh, this question makes me laugh! I am horrible at knowing celebrities and actors. If I had my choice, I would probably cast the kids I see in my neighborhood. They are funny and entertaining. But of course, they are not acting. They are just playing and being kids.

So, for Petra, it would be a girl named Nancy, who is wicked smart, loves books, and has a huge imagination.

What advice would you give to young writers?

Writing is not just about creating the perfect sentence. Punctuation and grammar are not that important. (Do not tell your teachers I told you that.) What is important? Your imagination. The ideas for stories and where they go is what is important in creating amazing tales and stories that readers will love. Keep a journal. (Even if it’s just paper stapled together.)

Stories can come from all around you. A simple, everyday thing can happen that gives you a great story idea. Write it down. No idea is too strange or magical or weird.

Even if you keep a personal journal and write down your thoughts. This counts. All writing will help you become a better storyteller and writer.

How did you feel the first time your work was published? How was your publishing journey?

It was scary! For many writers, our books begin to feel like they are our children. We care for and nurture them, then we send them off into the world. It’s like sending your child to kindergarten for the first time. We wonder if the world will accept and treat them kindly. But we also have hope for them. We hope that a young reader will connect with the story and characters. Will they find a friend in my book? Will my book be helpful to the reader in some way?

My publishing journey was unusual. Like most writers, I wrote for years and years. I wrote many short stories my entire life. Mostly weird ideas, me trying to make sense of unexplainable things. I tried writing my first novel in 2011. It was hard, but I loved it. Most writers finish a book, and it can take years or decades to publish. This often involves first finding an agent. That can take years. Typically, the agent will send the work to a publisher.

I did have an agent early on, beginning in about 2014. It didn’t go well. We weren’t a good fit. I found my current agent, Allison Remcheck, and we worked to get my book Lupe Wong Won’t Dance ready to send to publishers.

We were almost ready to send it out when I went to a writing conference in Portland, Oregon. While sitting at a round table with other writers and an editor, we read our first pages. This was just to get feedback on our work. Well, that editor, Nick Thomas, asked to see the rest of my book! This is unusual for sure. Not long after, Nick purchased that book.

People often think stories like this are overnight successes. They are not. There are years and years of writing and editing. But that meeting with Nick Thomas was definitely an unexpected twist in my journey and what normally happens.

" I do not translate for the reader, and I do not put the Spanish language in italics. My mind doesn’t see it that way, and I don’t think readers who speak both Spanish and English do either… I am welcoming readers to see language the way I do, and the way I think kids who navigate two languages do…It is a way to welcome someone to a new language and invite them to try and understand something that might not have felt comfortable to them."

What are some challenges you encounter when writing?

I am a daydreamer. Sometimes I am trying to finish a book or story, and my mind wanders. I wonder, “What if this happened instead?” Sometimes those wandering ideas are better than what I’ve written, and I have to rewrite entire parts of my book. But I have always been a daydreamer and get distracted by where my mind leads me. That is why I am not the fastest writer.

What was your experience like getting your book translated into Spanish or English?

Translators are magical! When Nick first told me Lupe Wong Won’t Dance would be in Spanish, I panicked. I said, “Uh, Nick. My Spanish is not that great. I can’t do that.” Rookie mistake on my part. He very politely told me, “Donna, we have translators for that.” Libia Brenda translated Lupe Wong Won’t Dance to Lupe Wong No Baila. She took the character into consideration and tried to preserve Lupe’s voice, using words Lupe would use.

The translator for The Last Cuentista is Aurora Humarán. Speaking about how wonderful this process has been with Aurora makes me emotional. Translating can be so difficult. Some things simply don’t come across the same way. Spanish language also has gender and is something I don’t often consider when I’m writing in English and how certain words sound “off” in Spanish. Aurora sends me detailed charts of words. She asks the phrasing of how I’d like things to be said. She has also worked so hard on the nuance of dialect. I was once ridiculed as a child that my Spanish was not “real Spanish”. That I spoke “street Spanish”. I grew up in Central California, and I simply repeated words and spoke the way I heard them. I hadn’t studied formal Spanish. So, when Aurora asked me, I told her I wanted this book and Petra to speak as I imagined her. Chicana. While Petra is not from California, I wanted her to speak in the way the people I knew had. But Aurora never told me how it should be. She asked me. She has gone so far above what I expected in keeping the voice of Petra authentic.

So being a translator has so many complexities. And I am so grateful for people like Libia and Aurora who preserve language and respect how different we all are.

How do you think libraries make our world a better place?

Life can be difficult. Sometimes all of us need a place that lets us escape. For me, that place was libraries. If I had trouble at home, a librarian could hand me a book that took me to a different home, or town, or country. If school was hard, I could go to the library and go on an adventure or to a magical or mythical land. If I had problems with friends, I could find new ones in books.

In traveling through books to new places and meeting new people whether in a non-fiction or fictional book, readers can understand and connect with someone or someplace they once did not understand. I believe being able to connect with others unlike our own experience, and gaining an understanding of others is what will make the world a better place.

What are you working on now?

I am working on two picture books. One is called El Pañuelo Amarillo/The Yellow Handkerchief, in which a young girl struggles with the way her Mexican grandmother and her panuelo amarillo—makes her feel different; but she grows to love the yellow handkerchief, which represents a language and a culture she once feared others would not understand, illustrated by Cynthia Alonso. It will be released in Spring 2023.

In a follow-up to El Cucuy is Scared, Too!, I’ve written another picture book, Feliz Navidad, El Cucuy, in which El Cucuy wants no part of the colorful lights, delicious food, and festivity of Christmas and Las Posadas, but with the help of a boy, El Cucuy discovers how even a grumpy boogeyman is welcome in traditions that remind us to have love and compassion for others, and to celebrate with the ones we love, illustrated by Juliana Perdomo. It will be released just in time for Christmas, Fall 2023. I am also writing another middle-grade book with Nick Thomas at Levine Querido, which I will be able to speak more of very soon.

Books by Donna Barba Higuera

Book cover for Lupe Wong Won't Dance
Lupe Wong Won't Dance
Higuera, Donna Barba

Book cover for The Last Cuentista
The Last Cuentista
Higuera, Donna Barba

Book cover for El Cucuy is Scared, Too!
El Cucuy is Scared, Too!
Higuera, Donna Barba

Donna Barba Higuera at L.A. Libros Fest