Juan Felipe Herrera
An interview with the current U.S. Poet Laureate about his books for kids.
Now the first Latino Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera is an accomplished author whose wide body of work includes bilingual picture books and y.a. novels written in verse. In 2007 we met over coffee and talked about his writing for kids — how he plays back and forth in English and Spanish, and how controversial his books seem in an era of deportations and heated discussions about the border.
An Edited Interview with Juan Felipe Herrera
The central moment in many of your books is the time you went to school and had trouble “fitting in” because you spoke only Spanish. But you were helped when a teacher took a special interest in you. Why do you keep coming back to that moment?
There is so much electricity around those school moments. Ruptures, estrangements, even imprisonments. Those were vascular moments, as if blood was spurting everywhere. And they seemed at odds with the other “sentido” or feeling I remember from my childhood: stars at night, the howling of coyotes, dew on the grass in the morning. Like a painting by Paul Klee. Soft colors. A softness on eyes and skin.
Is Fresno the capitol of Latino/a children’s literature?
My parents were migrant farm workers in the Fresno area, and I eventually ended up teaching creative writing at California State University in Fresno. Other Latino/a children’s writers–Gary Soto, Pam Muñoz Ryan–are from there and write about Fresno. Even Francisco Jiménez writes about that area. There are tribes of writers and we are definitely a crew. It’s funny to say so, but Fresno has been for Latino/a children’s writers what Paris was for Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
In the late 60s and in the 70s, you were in the vanguard of the Chicano movement. You were very hip and connected. Do you miss those days?
Sure. Those were very free times. A time of intense experimentation. I was living in San Diego, next door to my friend, the poet, Alurista. That was the time of Chicano Park and the Centro Cultural de la Raza. The muralists. Street theater. I was performing all over with Luis Valdez and the Teatro Campesino. Going to L.A., San Francisco, Mexico City. Now, thirty-seven years later, things are different and we are the older generation.
Your picture books are bilingual in an interesting way. Why is it that the English and Spanish texts are not quite the same?
Typically, I write in English first. Then I translate into Spanish. But then I look at the Spanish and see the different flavors it adds, so I translate back into English. It keeps going back and forth until I have two related but stand-alone stories in the two languages. There’s something, then, for the monolingual English reader. And there’s something for the monolingual Spanish reader. But for kids who knows both English and Spanish, the result is stereo because they can see how the story in one language comments on the story in the other language. Really, more than bilingual, the experience is interlingual.
In Super Cilantro Girl you write about a little girl whose mother, an American citizen, is wrongly detained when she returns to the U.S. after a visit to Mexico. That book was published in 2003. I wonder how you see it now in terms of news like the recent immigration sweeps where undocumented parents were shipped off to Texas deportation centers while their children waited at schools and daycare centers to be picked up?
The problem is always the same: families separated by immigration issues. Of course, as Indians and Mexicans, we have always had difficulties with the Border Patrol and the INS ever since the border was set up. But the present Bush administration has put more pressure on us.
What accounts for your fascination with flying?
Tomasito–the wheelchair-bound boy in Featherless–has a pet bird and dreams about flying. Calling the Doves is also about birds and flying. In Super Cilantro Girl, Esmeralda dreams about turning into a green, fifty-foot-high superhero who flies to her mother’s rescue. My fascination with flying is everywhere. It comes from my interest in shamans and the beliefs of native Americans. My mind is always soaring. I do five things at the same time and I write fast. I actually have to slow myself down to get things done. The art of flying is the art of writing.
Picture Books (bilingual editions)
Calling the Doves / El canto de las palomas. Illustrated by Elly Simmons. Children’s Book Press: $7.95 (paperback)
Featherless / Desplumado. Illustrated by Ernesto Cuevas. Children’s Book Press: $16.95 (hardcover)
Grandma and Me at the Flea [Market] / Los Meros Meros Remateros. Illustrated by Anita De Lucio-Brock. Children’s Book Press: $16.95 (hardcover)
Laughing Out Loud, I Fly / A Carcajadas Yo Vuelo. Illustrated by Karen Barbour. Joanna Cotler Books (HarperCollins): $15.99 (hardcover)
Super Cilantro Girl / La superniña del cilantro. Illustrated by Honorio Robleda Tapia. Children’s Book Press: $16.95 (hardcover)
The Upside Down Boy / El nino de cabeza. Illustrated by Elizabeth Gomez. Paperback. Children’s Book Press: $7.95 (paperback)
Cinnamon Girl: letters found inside a cereal box. Rayo [Press]: $7.99 (paperback)
CrashBoomLove: A Novel in Verse. University of New Mexico Press: $13.95 (paperback)
Downtown Boy. Scholastic Press: $16.99 (hardcover)
This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (May 2007). On June 10, 2015, Herrera became the first Latino appointed U.S. Poet Laureate. By the way, on the subject of Latina/o children’s books, I really like my friend Phillip Serrato’s essay “Working With What We Got.”