Each year, YALSA awards one debut novelist with the prestigious William C. Morris YA Debut Award. The winner will be announced on January 23, but the finalists are in right now: Rae Carson, with The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Jenny Hubbard with Paper Covers Rock, Guadalupe Garcia McCall with Under the Mesquite, Ruta Sepetys with Between Shades of Gray, and John Corey Whaley with Where Things Come Back. We’ll be running Q&A’s with all these talented writers in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned!
Guadalupe is nominated for her debut novel Under the Mesquite, a novel in verse about a family of Mexican immigrants told through the eyes of teenage Lupita. Lupita is forced to grow up suddenly when her mother is diagnosed with cancer and must travel to an out-of-town clinic for treatment, leaving Lupita to take care of her seven younger siblings. As Lupita works to keep her family together, she takes refuge in poetry and nature. Learn more about Guadalupe below!
Congrats on being nominated for such a prestigious award! How does to feel to be a William C. Morris finalist?
It feels like I think it would feel to suddenly be able to fly–surreal, wonderfully unexpected, and a little bit scary. It’s surreal because it’s like a dream. You know it could happen, but you’re not sure it’s really happening, and no matter what you say or do you can’t control any of it. You just have to wait to see if you wake up. The fact that it’s even happening, though, is wonderfully unexpected. I’m walking around with this joyful knowledge, alternating between smiles and frowns. I smile at the thought of it and then I worry that it’s not real. That I am dreaming. And it’s a bit scary, all of it–the publicity, the look on your best friend’s face, the sudden realization that from now on everyone’s going to expect this kind of performance from you. But, even though it might feel this way, I welcome it, just as much as I suspect I would welcome the ability to suddenly be able to fly.
What do you like about writing for teens?
I love that, like teaching, writing for teens is important work. I like that it takes me back to my own teenage years and lets me experience life in a way that I couldn’t enjoy when I was living it. I’m a thinker, so I like reflecting on the experiences I had, what they have done for me, what has become of them in the context of my spirit. I think all teenagers are thinkers too. They spend a lot of their time thinking about the future and the life that is coming over the bend and beyond the hill, and I like writing about that–the dreams, the hopes, the reality of limitations, and the kinds of courageous teens who can transcend them.
What advice can you give to aspiring young writers?
As a middle school English teacher, I meet and interact with a lot of aspiring writers. I tell them the same thing I tell myself. Write what you love and don’t worry about what other people might think or say because they see you scribbling away. But do worry about your words. Words are powerful, so work on them every day: mold them, shape them, play with them–make them your truths, but don’t intentionally hurt anyone. And keep that dream alive in your heart. It is the only way to live–with a dream in your heart.
What inspired you to write Under the Mesquite in verse rather than in a more traditional format?
The inspiration for Under the Mesquite came from a collection of poems about my childhood. I had been writing these little poems in my classroom, as examples of how to use literary devices. In 1998-99, publishers starting accepting them for their literary magazines, and I thought–hey, maybe they are good enough to be published as a collection of poetry for young adults. So I sent them out and Emily Hazel at Lee & Low loved them. She worked with me on turning the collection into a novel in verse, which is a format I was familiar with but had not considered for these poems. I am blessed that she saw the potential in that little badge of poems and worked with me on making Under the Mesquite come to life.
Your protagonist Lupita and her family originally hail from Mexico, and Under the Mesquite is infused with elements of their culture and heritage. How much of your own immigration experience made it into your novel?
I was so young when we arrived, six years old, but I have such vivid memories of it. I have to say that the second part of the novel, “Remembering,” is pure memory. Every poem in that section was in the original collection of poetry, so they are all deeply rooted on my experiences of immigration. Like Lupita, I was comfortable and happy in Mexico. I loved playing among the sunflowers, spending time with Mami on our porch in that little blue house in front of the Plaza de Toros, and sitting on Papi’s lap when he came home from working covered in sawdust. So I was sad to have it all end, to move to a totally different place with a new language and so much that I could not understand. But nature was always there for me. It gave me hope and filled me with peace, just like it does for Lupita. There are many other moments in the novel, during Lupita’s acclimation, that are also very much from my experience. In high school, I had a hard time trying to speak English without an accent–in fact, I still struggle with it today. A lot of my high school friends frowned upon the idea of even trying. So that struggle–that tug of war between loyalty to friends/family/heritage and the desire to conquer a problem, to evolve, and to transcend–also became part of Lupita’s struggle. I think that writers can’t help but infuse themselves into their writing. It’s what gives their work heart.