By Amy Lutz, MCWC Editorial Assistant
For MCWC 2018 MG/YA instructor Guadalupe Garcia McCall, writing is an opportunity to effect change in both her readers and herself. Guadalupe’s first YA novel, Under the Mesquite, won the prestigious Pura Belpré Award, was named a Morris Award finalist, and received a Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, among many other accolades. Her two other YA books, Summer of the Mariposas and Shame the Stars, are widely read at public schools and universities all over the U.S. Her fourth YA novel, All the Stars Denied, is due for publication in September.
We spoke with Guadalupe about her favorite aspects of writing for the MG/YA market and the expertise she will bring to this year’s MG/YA workshop.
In this interview with Lee and Low Books, you described your first book, Under the Mesquite, as autobiographical. In it, the protagonist deals with challenges in her life through writing. How has writing helped you deal with challenges in your own life?
Writing has always been an outlet for me, a way of figuring things out and making sense of the world around me. Every time I’ve had something that I can’t quite understand, I turn to writing. It is through that process of exploration and discovery that I get to the root of what might be bothering me.
This happened to me recently. I was asked to give a keynote at the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference (NLCLC) this year. I happily accepted and put the ideas aside because I usually have no problem coming up with something I want to say. However, as the time for the conference approached, I found myself more and more reluctant to hit the keyboard. Two nights before the conference I realized what was wrong: the world was encroaching on my creativity. I was overwhelmed with the horrible things that I was reading in my news feed and I couldn’t concentrate on the beautiful things I wanted to say at the NLCLC. So, I did what I always do. I wrote about those things, connected them to my need to write, my need to affect change in this world. Needless to say, my speech touched others. The truth is we’re all in this together, suffering the same ailments, burdened by the same social injustices. Writing helps us speak about and against the things that affect us all.
Under the Mesquite is a novel in verse. Summer of the Mariposas is a retelling of The Odyssey in a world of magical realism. Shame the Stars, and the soon-to-be-released, All the Stars Denied, are historical novels. What inspired you to write young adult books in three different sub-genres: poetry, fantasy and historical romance?
I don’t limit myself when I write. If a good story comes to me, I sit down and tell it. It doesn’t matter what kind of story it is, contemporary, fantasy, historical, sci-fi, doesn’t matter. It’s the story that matters. I remember someone commenting that I had not yet learned to “brand” myself, that I was all over the place when it came to my writing career. I have to say, I don’t see myself that way at all. I see myself as a diverse writer. We are not just one type of person, defined by one kind of life: one culture, one food preference, one talent, one personality trait. As individuals, we’re multi-faceted. We have many different interests. Because I love learning, I read extensively, from every genre, and I write what comes to me—fearlessly and joyfully, because writing, like life, is to be enjoyed.
You talked about your writing process for Shame the Stars in this interview with Rich In Color. How was your writing process different for each book?
I wrote Under the Mesquite using what I would call an “episodic structure.” Every poem has its own story arc which feeds into the chapter’s arc which feeds into the book’s arc. This structure grew organically from the structure of the original manuscript, which was a collection of poems called, “Poems From Under The Mesquite.” However, when Emily Hazel, my editor at Lee & Low Books, and I started to structure it into a novel-in-verse, I decided that each poem had to stand alone. I wanted readers to be able to step back from the story and linger in each moment to reflect and connect with Lupita on an emotional level. For Summer of the Mariposas, I used Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” because I wanted it to be a strong retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey. As for the process, I just outlined it on my wall with sticky notes, replacing each Greek element with a Mexican myth, legend, or iconic character. It was like filling in a word puzzle. Fun. Fun. Fun. Shame the Stars was the hardest because of all the research. But I learned so much by digging through the Library of Congress online database. My search for information brought ideas for more books.
How has teaching high school influenced your ability to write for the young adult market?
Teaching high school has been inspiring because I see how my students react when they hear about new things like “La Matanza.” Their need to immediately find and verify information is contagious. They question everything and reach for their phones to google things they don’t understand. I love that. I want to learn with them and so I keep looking for things they’re interested in, and that influences my writing. I want to bring them things that will make them think, question, dig deeper, and hopefully take action.
Can you tell us about your workshop, The Magic of MG/YA Novels? What do you plan to share with workshop participants?
I want us to look at beginnings, middles, and ends from award winning MG and YA books from different genres and from all kinds of writers through the “writer’s lens.” We’ll talk about first lines, voice, point of view, tone, universal appeal, and literary merit. We’ll discuss how first pages are the most important pages when it comes to grabbing and keeping the reader’s attention. We’ll also practice using some of the skills we see working in these books. We’ll write, workshop our work, and talk about “next steps,” or what I call sustainability—how we plan to keep the writing flowing. We’ll make a plan and commit to finishing what we started, give the story the opportunity to take us where it wants to go, because all stories want to be told, we just have to give them our attention and time. We’ll leave the workshop filled with dreams and hopes and a good idea of where we’re headed as writers.
Many authors are not quite sure if they are writing for children, young adults, or adults. Why would it be beneficial for them to join your workshop?
I think looking specifically at MG/YA books through the “writer’s lens” will give us a good perspective of what our own voice sounds like—how it reads. When I first started working on Under the Mesquite, turning it into a novel-in-verse that could appeal to ages 10 and up, I didn’t know how to do it either. My editor explained some basic structural components of MG/YA, and so I had to tweak my story to fall in with those components. That’s what we’re going to talk about and practice using in my workshop—the story elements that are unique and important to MG/YA. Knowing this should help give writers some clarity about their audience and genre.