Every now and then I receive a review copy of a book that wows me. When Tía Isa Wants a Car arrived at my doorstep from Candlewick Press a few weeks ago, I cracked it open and was smitten with the book by the end of the first page. As I turned the pages, I came across page-after-page of well-written prose and artwork that enhanced the writing. By the time I was halfway through the book I knew Tía Isa would be a text I would be recommending for other teachers to use in both reading and writing workshops.
I interviewed Meg Medina, the author of Tía Isa wants a Car last week. I wanted to learn more about her writing process since I want to use this book with children going-forward. I figured it would be helpful to have insight from the author about some of her craft moves so I can have a little more clout when presenting this book as a mentor text to a child.
Stacey: The very first page of the book says so much about the characters. Immediately I can tell that this family is a working class family that has big dreams and strong family values. How did you infuse so much into one single page?
Meg: Writing a picture book is always a partnership between writer and illustrator, so I can’t take all the credit. Claudio’s beautiful illustrations do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of the story. His images fill in what is not said in words. But in terms of text, I’d say it always comes down to the details you choose. I’m very picky in selecting details that work hard for the story in what they suggest. Imagine living in a really tiny, one room apartment. You wouldn’t buy a dining table and a kitchen table and a couch and a bed. Instead, you’d have one table that could be casual or dressy. You’d have a sofa that could turn into a bed, an ottoman to store all your sheets inside. The same kind of double duty is needed for the details you use in a picture book. In Tía Isa, for example, a jump rope is more than a game she’s playing. It’s inexpensive, so anyone can own one. You can find it in city neighborhoods everywhere. It also requires someone to spend time with you in a sort of partnership and rhythm, which worked well for my characters. Also, it’s playful – and who doesn’t love the adult relative who still makes time to play games with us? Those are always our favorites. All of that is part of the idea of “jump rope.” Then there’s the smell of lemon pies that tells us she just got home from work, and that the work isn’t fancy. What it comes down to is building the “world of the story” without clogging up your tale with too much explanation.
Stacey: You used a repetitive phrase, “Tia Isa wants a car” several times in the book. How do you think the repetition of this line strengthened the story?
Meg: There’s a poetic quality to repetition, but I also like that repetition mimics longing. When you want something, you think about it again and again. But the repetition has practical use, too, in a book for very young readers. Predictability is one of the strategies we use to help them learn to read. It also works well to remind them of the basic question as they move through the story: how is she going to get that car?
Stacey: You have some great detailed sentences in the book that truly “show” the reader, not “tell” the reader something. For instance instead of writing that Senior Leo was bald you said, “He stops to scratch his shiny head and has an idea.” Another example of this was when you showed your readers how much money the little girl saved you wrote, “So I wait and wait until one day my secret money sock has grown into a giant money sausage and can’t wait anymore.” If a young writer were mentoring themselves after you, then how could you help them to “show, not tell” in the manner you did?
Meg: I’d always return to careful observation. I let kids practice that skill a lot when I work in classrooms. She looks sad. Really? What does “sad” look like? Is it in a sigh? Or averted eyes? Slumped shoulders? Is it in the dishes piled in the sink as she stares out the window? I love the specifics. One way younger writers get at those observation skills is to do work on observation in other art forms, such as movement or visual art. Say the topic is sadness. One child starts the statue with his/her “sad” pose. One by one, students attach to the statue with their own pose for sad. It’s about gesture and showing something nonverbally. Another option I’ve used in the past is spending some time with paintings and photographs. Words are completely absent, yet we get the idea. How? To me, zeroing in on the details – and deciding which details are strongest – is basic to showing.
Stacey: Your book is an excellent mentor for teaching story structure. Would you say the climax of the book is when they get the car or when they are riding home in the car past the bus full of people? (If you mapped out your story, can you share some insight into how you did that with our readers?)
Meg: I think the climax is finding the car – and everything that follows is a joyous, careening resolution. The main issue for me is that the narrator solves the central problem of the book by her own clever devices. When I’m doing with the story, I like to feel emotionally satisfied… as thought I’m saying a relieved, ahhhhhhh.
Stacey: What’s the best writing-related advice you have received that you can share?
Meg: I’ve had so many wonderful teachers and fellow writers in my life. It’s hard to pick just one piece of advice. But here’s what they have taught me collectively: Show up for work every day and write. Don’t edit yourself too soon. Write with the heart of the child you once were.
Stacey: There is an underlying social issue of sexism in this book. Tio Andres scoffs at the idea that Tia Isa wants a car. How come you chose to include his opposition to the idea in the story? What made him come around in the end?
Meg: Well, for one thing, I remember that sexism was very much a part of our home in the early 1970’s. Despite the fact that my family was mostly made up of women, there was a certain deference to men, and there was a whole list of things deemed too scary for women to do, according to my abuela. Driving. Going out at night alone. Oh, the list was endless. I always hated that. But sexism is certainly still with us, in some cultures more than others. For me, the sexism in the book fills out the conflict a little more, too. There is something particularly heroic about achieving something that even the people who love you think you can’t do. It shows an inner sense of self that can’t be dampened.
Stacey: The word soon comes up in the text. This is such a small word, but the main character shows that she understands the different meanings of the word soon based on her thoughts when she thinks, “But soon is when our family is going to join us here, so I know soon can be a very long time.” Why did you choose to include the concept of soon in the story?
Meg: For many Latino families, long separations are a sad fact of life. Separation due to jobs, political realities, or immigration status. All we can offer is that it’s not forever, that it will end “soon,” even though the adults might not know when. I didn’t use “soon” to help readers understand time – which is a developing concept for kids in this age group — except to acknowledge how hard it is to wait for what you feel you want and need.
Stacey: What’s your next project?
Meg: I’m very excited to be working on a curated reading list called Girls of Summer with my friend and fellow Candlewick author, Gigi Amateau. (Here’s the link to my website where I’ve posted the trailer: http://www.megmedina.com). It’s our answer to dreary summer reading lists. All the titles we select will feature strong girls as protagonists. GOS will roll out in early July 2011. It will be in a blog format, and we’ll have author interviews, giveaways, reviews, etc. Several amazing writers are going to lend their thoughts and talents.
Tía Isa Wants a Car will come out en español next year, and my new YA novel, The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind (Candlewick Press), will be out in March, too. In the meantime, I’m about 2/3 through my manuscript for a second YA novel called Finding Yaqui Delgado.
As far as stories go, Tía Isa Wants a Car reminded me a lot of Vera B. Williams’ A Chair for My Mother. But there was something about the way this book was written that grabbed me and makes me want to share it with as many teachers and elementary school students as possible since it’s a stellar example of what happens when everything goes right with a piece of writing. Just take a look at a few excerpts from Tía Isa and I’m sure you’ll agree.
TIA ISA WANTS A CAR. Text copyright © 2011 by Meg Medina. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Claudio Muñoz. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Thank you to Candlewick Press or agreeing to sponsor a giveaway of a copy of Tia Isa Wants a Car to one of our readers.
To win a copy of the book please leave a comment about the interview with Meg Medina or how you might use Tia Isa Wants a Car in your classroom in the comments section of this post by Sunday, June 19th by 11:59 p.m. EST. A random drawing will take place and the winner’s name will be announced in a blog post on Tuesday, June 21st.
Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address and have my contact at Candlewick Press ship the book out to you. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.