Interview with Children's Book Author Carmen T. Bernier-Grand

Carmen T. Bernier-Grand is the author of: JUAN BOBO: FOUR FOLKTALES FROM PUERTO RICO (An I Can Read Book), illustrated by Ernesto Ramos Nieves (HarperTrophy, 1995); IN THE SHADE OF THE NISPERO TREE (Yearling, 2001) and POET AND POLITICIAN OF PUERTO RICO: DON LUIS MUNOZ MARIN (Scholastic, 1995). This interview was conducted via email in April 2001. Visit: Carmen T. Bernier-Grand.

What were the earliest inklings that you would someday become a writer?

Juan Bobo by Carmen T. Bernier-GrandWhen I was growing up, I had no clue I was going to be a writer. Yet my sister called me a liar because I was always making up stories.

In third grade, I wrote a story about my teacher chewing gum in school. It wasn't true that my teacher chewed gum in school, so when she read my story to the class, I freaked out. I thought I was going to be kicked out of school for being a liar. Just when I was about to burst out in tears, my teacher said, "I love this story, and I want to publish it in the school newspaper." That was my first published story. But instead of believing my teacher, I believed my sister Lisette. So, for years I studied math and taught math, which I loved.

What encouragement helped you along your way?

When I came to live in Portland, I worked for three years as a computer programmer. But then I had my two babies, one after the other, and decided to stay home.

The babies were a joy and kept me busy, but I'd never stayed home, and I felt the need to write. Sure that I couldn't do so in English, I queried the publishers asking if they were interested in publishing books in Spanish.

The responses were disappointing. So, I wrote a story in English and sent it to a Willamette Writers contest. To my surprise, I won! That did it. I was scared, but determined to write for children in English, yet hoped—still hoping—to have my stories in English be published in Spanish some day.

Did you face any early challenges to finding success on this path?

I am writing in my second language. Spanish is my native language. For me, to be writing in English is a challenge.

Other than that, I have to ask you, "What is success?" When I wasn't published, I thought that success was to have a book out. But as you know, in this field there is always a higher hill challenging us—which is good.

What books were among your childhood favorites and why?

We're rich in this country! So many libraries. So many books.

I grew up without a library and without a bookstore. But I remember a school book with a merry-go-round in its red cover that had in it CAPS FOR SALE.

Another story that fascinated me was written by Gabriela Mistral. Every time her character said a lie, frogs and snakes came out of her mouth. When she said the truth, pearls and diamonds came out.

I remember liking it when my grandfather told jokes, and when my teachers made up stories.

I read lots of comic books. But before I read them, I looked at the pictures and made up my own stories.

What are your favorite titles today and why?

Hard question. I have many favorite authors, you among them. I prefer to read children and young adult books. Many of their authors paint with words.

These books are concise, to the point, without all the extra, sometimes unnecessary details that adult books have.

Yet we have García Marquez, Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, Rosario Ferré, and so many other authors of adult books I admire.

You have published three very different titles: An I Can Read Book, a middle grade novel, and a nonfiction book. What were the pros and cons of each format?

Editors tell me I should focus on one genre, because it is hard for the readers to get to know you, to identify you, if you write different kind of books. But I write what my heart dictates.

At the same time, I feel I have learned a lot by writing these different books.

Maybe my readers will identify me as a writer of Puerto Rican themes. But ... would I always write about Puerto Rico? I don't know.

Which did you enjoy the most and why?

That's like asking which book of mine I like the most. It's becoming a cliché, but I'll say it anyway: My books are like my children, different from each other but I love them both.

I laughed writing JUAN BOBO; I got angry at the world writing POET AND POLITICIAN; I cried writing NISPERO.

What inspired you to retell the Juan Bobo stories?

At a Willamette Writers conference, I asked author Eric Kimmel for advice on how I could begin writing children's books. He recommended me to start writing stories I'd heard when I was growing up. What stories did I hear when I was growing up? The Juan Bobo stories!

At that same conference, HarperCollins editor Robert Warren was a speaker. He smoked a lot—he still does—and being the good environmentalists that Oregonians are, nobody followed him when he went outside to smoke. But I did!

I told—TOLD—Robert the first story that is now in the book. He asked if I could put that in an I CAN READ format, and I said yes! But I had no idea what an I CAN READ was. That Monday, I asked the librarian for help. She gave me FROG AND TOAD and hundreds of other books which I studied carefully. I wrote the Juan Bobo stories in that format and HarperCollins accepted the manuscript. Lesson: Study your market.

What advice do you have for writers who are interested in retellings?

My advice is not just for the re-tellers but for everyone. Make sure you're telling your story with accuracy and respect. Even if it is your own culture, check the facts. Don't rely on your memory.

Tell the truth. Write an author's note saying what you made up and what you didn't. Tell the readers about your sources.

If you don't have passion for the story, don't write it. Because then your lack of research will show.

Why did you decide to write a biography of Don Luis Munoz Marin? Were there any behind-the-scenes research quandries or triumphs?

Another long story.

Muñoz wasn't my family's favorite politician. My parents have always wanted statehood for Puerto Rico, and Muñoz was the most influential Puerto Rican in making the island a Commonwealth of the United States.

When I was younger and shorter than I am now, I wasn't interested in politics. But I didn't like Muñoz because he didn't comb his hair. Yet I didn't comb my hair either. I liked pro-statehood leader Don Luis Ferré (author Rosario Ferré's father) because he always was well-dressed and combed his hair.

Then, a few years ago, my uncle Elfren Bernier wrote a book about Muñoz. Elfren, who was Muñoz's assistant when Muñoz became the First Elected Governor of Puerto Rico, told anecdotes in the book that intrigued me. This wasn't the Muñoz I knew! So, I began my research.

I read everything I could get hold of from Oregon. But at one point in the biography I wrote that Muñoz had gone to Europe and had come back. The members of my critique groups said that they needed to know what Muñoz did in Europe. I had no way of knowing, unless I traveled to Puerto Rico.

But I had no money.

I wrote a work-in-progress grant to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and I got it! In Puerto Rico, I went to the Fundación de Luis Muñoz Marín, situated in his land. I got to see his house, got to sit at his desk, got to walk in his gardens, got to interview his bodyguard who had gone to Europe with him, and got to interview his son who looks almost exactly like him.

I also worked in the photo research for the book that Harold Underdown, then editor of ORCHARD BOOKS, accepted almost right away.

IN THE SHADE OF THE NISPERO TREE touches on race and especially class clashes. What response to this novel have you received from young readers? What do you hope they will take from the story?

I hear that at Ainsworth School in Portland there has been a waiting list to read NISPERO. This is interesting to me because Ainsworth is a public school of high and middle class families. But what this tells me is that children are thirsty for the acceptance of children of every class and race. Unfortunately, adults plant prejudice in the children's minds—just like Mami did to Teresa.

It is my hope that this book is used in many mother-daughter reading groups. I also hope that boys take a peek at it, because they also suffer prejudice.

Every reader—and writer—takes from a story what they need. In writing NISPERO, I learned about people's bright and dark places: that we all have good and bad in us, but that we can tame the bad if we embrace the good.

Did the novel in any way reflect your own childhood? If so, how?

Every book is in one way or another autobiographical.

Juan Bobo is silly Carmen—although sometimes I feel I am the chicken that my illustrator Ernesto Ramos Nieves added to the story.

Don Luis Muñoz Marín is rebellious Carmen. It was also interesting to me to learn about him being a poet. As a writer, I felt for his struggles as a poet.

In NISPERO, Teresa is in some ways me! But NISPERO isn't my story.

The story was first inspired by my first-grade, best friend Hilcia Montañez. But Hilcia and I didn't get separated for the same reasons Teresa and Ana did. Our school only had so many grades, and I had to go to another school. I have no idea where Hilcia went. I have the feeling she is somewhere in the U.S. because nobody I know in Puerto Rico has seen her again. I miss Hilcia and I wish I could find her—that was the reason to write NISPERO. But my characters wanted to tell a different story, and I let them.

Perhaps my characters told me their story because I have been concerned for a long time that now in the U.S. there is the quiet prejudice I saw in Puerto Rico in the 1960s.

Prejudice is a problem that needs to be discussed. Otherwise, it gets to be very damaging. I hope NISPERO helps my readers talk about it.

By the way, nobody in this book can say, "That's so-and-so," because the characters are composites of many characters: The hair of a friend, with the eyes of another, with the feelings of another, with the experiences of yet another.

Fortunately, Raúl Colón captured this in the cover. He took my head and put it on Teresa. He took my dress and put it on Ana. Family friends say that Ana looks like my sister—and she does! But Raúl didn't have a picture of my sister.

The book, however, depicts realistically many middle-class, families living in Puerto Rico when the Civil Rights Movements in the U.S. was just starting. As you can see, prejudice in Puerto Rico, wasn't as radical as it was in the U.S. at that time. But it did exist. As I said before, it existed in the quiet way it exists here in this new century. Unfortunately, some readers tell me it hasn't changed much in Puerto Rico. How sad!

How have you seen your writing evolve over the years? What new directions are interesting to you?

I don't feel I am evolving, but I guess I am. Editor Robert Warren told me a couple of years ago that he's amazed at how much I'd learned. But there's so much more to learn! That's what makes this business interesting. There's always more to learn. It keeps me young!

You ask about new directions; Well, I am now writing a story about my crazy sister Lisette—a memoir, yet another genre. And I have never been able to write a publishable picture book. What's the magic? It intrigues me, and I won't rest until I figure it out.

What draws you to write stories connected to your cultural heritage? Why do you think such stories are important to young readers?

Any story should be important to some reader.

I write what comes to my three Hs (Head, Heart, Hand). So far, that has been stories set in Puerto Rico. Maybe because that's where I was as a child. But I don't rule out the idea of writing stories in other settings. They are not just in my three Hs yet.

It is important to know that my books are for Latinos but NOT only for Latinos. Some reviewers tend to put them in the "Latino library" category, but I write for everybody: Latino or not Latino, young and old.

How would you describe the current status of Latino/Hispanic-related children's and young adult literature? What are the bright spots? What might be slowing down progress?

Lacking. The surveys say that the Latino population is the fastest growing minority in the U.S. Yet there are not enough books representing that population.

The bright side is that editors are publishing us—at least some of us—and that they are looking for Latino illustrators. I have to thank here HarperCollins who gave me my first opportunity to be published, Orchard Books who published my novel and my biography, and Millbrook Press who will soon publish my next book.

I do have to say, however, that the market still has the stereotypical idea that Latinos don't read. I read. Many of my Latino friends—young and old—are voracious readers. And again, a book with Latino characters is not just for Latinos.

And while I am at it, more Latinos editors and reviewers are needed.

Which titles (other than your own) do you particularly recommend?

I am partial about Eloise McGraw's books. Although she died last November, her books should keep living—THE MOORCHILD especially because its character feels she doesn't fit in. So many of us feel that way!

But my guess is that you want to hear about books with Latino themes. ESPERANZA RISING by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a favorite of mine.

But please allow me to recommend SHADOW SPINNER by Susan Fletcher, because that is a book every storyteller should read.

What impact, if any, do you expect to see in children's literature from all the census-related publicity about increases in the U.S. Hispanic/Latino population? Why or why not?

I hope the publishers are listening! More books with Latino characters are needed, not only for the Latinos to see themselves in books, but also to improve the understanding of our culture. Also, if it is true that this Nation wants to cut the dropout rates, it is important for the students to see that they are welcomed, that we respect them, that we embrace them. One way to accomplish this is through books.

I am also pro bilingual books. Latinos should learn English but they also should keep their Spanish. Actually, I think everybody should keep their native language. Everybody should be multilingual! Languages should be encouraged—and nurtured.

Contrary to what I hear publisher say, I believe there's a market for them, not only among Latinos but also among students who want to learn Spanish.

(Editorial comment of site author: I strongly agree with the above statement).

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

A writer writes. Don't call yourself a writer if you just have an idea that you plan to write after you retire. Write it today!

It's hard to get published. But if you don't train, you don't win. Don't give up. Get your head muscles, your heart muscles, your hand muscles to exercise until your story is in shape to submit.

If you're not passionate about this, don't get into it. Try to quit. If you can't, don't ever try to quit again.

Read books in the genre you are writing about. Read everything good. Read everything bad.

Belong to the Society of Children's Book Writers.

Become a member of a critique group. I wouldn't be published today without the help of the members of my critique groups.

Do you have any particular advice for writers from underrepresented communities?

You have a story to tell. If you're passionate about it, TELL IT! Do so with all your heart. Your story might just heal a tiny wound in the world, but that wound won't be oozing pus anymore.

Where do you turn for instruction and inspiration?

Poetry! When I don't feel like writing (this usually happens when I have ignored my characters for a day or two), I read a poem.

What do you do outside of your writing life?

My writing life is my life! When I don't write, I get grouchy.

I also play with Falcon. Read. Walk. Write emails to Juliana and Guille. Talk to Jeremy.

Are you interested in speaking to groups? If so, how can interested parties contact you?

I give a slide show on Puerto Rico, my writing, my books; writing workshops; Write Nights to families; talks on how to pass on our cultures; and I speak at writing conference.

They can reach me by email: grand@hevanet.com

What's next for your fans?

Next spring Millbrook Press will publish SHAKE IT, MORENA! This collection of Puerto Rican folklore (stories, songs, riddles, games) is being beautifully illustrated by Lulu DeLacre.

I'd like to end by giving thanks to author Cynthia Leitich Smith for honoring me with this interview.