Yardi talks to fellow author Jes Nuanez about her debut, a middle-grade novel full of fantasy and magical realism that’s just been published by Carolrhoda/Lerner Books. Yardi is a member of the online group the Sweet Sixteens for YA novelists debuting in 2016; Nuanez rolls with the Swanky Seventeens.
ABOUT THE NOVEL
Life is confusing for Mateo Martinez. He and Johnny Ramirez don’t hang out anymore, even though they used to be best friends. He and his new friend Ashwin try to act like brave, old-time knights, but it only gets them in trouble. His parents keep telling him to hold his sister’s hand when crossing busy streets, even though she’s the one who always runs ahead.
And last night, two skunks stole Mateo’s old trike.
Wait—two skunks stole his trike?
Mateo is too big for that rusty kid toy. He has a cool, shiny new bike anyway. But Mateo also has a neighborhood to protect. And he’s about to begin a big, stinky quest to catch the thieves. A quest that starts in the middle of the night!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robin Yardi is the author of nonfiction picture books and absolutely-not-nonfiction middle grade novels. She loves animals of all sorts, homemade cakes, and kids. And, she thinks kids are way cooler than grownups, which is why she writes just for them!
TALKING ABOUT ‘MATEO’
Congrats on your debut novel! I’d love to know the genesis of this story. Did the characters come to you first? Or the talking animals? Or something else?
The very first image I had was of the two skunks riding off on a trike.
I was sitting up on the couch with my then four-year-old daughter, watching a real skunk nibble-scribble-crunch some dog food out on our back porch, when my wheels started spinning like the creaky tires of an old trike.
The first sentence I wrote, in my first draft was: “Nobody believed me when I said two skunks stole my trike.” And that sentence, but for one word, is still the opening of the finished novel. I knew I had a great beginning, but I had no idea who my main character was. It took a while to figure that out.
Even the skunks were a mystery. I didn’t know that the skunks were going to talk… until they did. I was just as surprised as Mateo!
Your book features a diverse set of characters – and they are diverse even within larger labels we’re used to seeing like “Latino” or “Chicano” or “Hispanic.” I love that Mateo (whose father speaks Spanish) thinks about his identity and the differences between him and other kids who grow up speaking Spanish. Additionally, what was the inspiration for Mateo and Mila’s family?
I was hesitant to write about Latin@ characters, because I’m not a Latina, but I realized that leaving them out of this story, which is set in my hometown, would have been a lie. I have a diverse family, I live in a diverse city, and I have always taught diverse students. So, for me, diversity is reality—it’s important, and beautiful, and interesting.
The adage, “write what you know,” doesn’t say anything about writing what you are. I wrote Mateo as honorable, funny, and inventive, because that is what I know. I wrote Mila as an irrepressible powerhouse, because that is what I know. These kids, Mateo, Mila, Johnny, Danny, and Ashwin, I made them up, but they are real and unique. I know what their parents do, what their houses are like, what they love, and what they hate. And (this might be the most important part) I like them all. Even Danny Vega, who’s a little bit of a stinker in this book.
I get them.
And the diversity within the larger labels that you find in the book is also reflective of my lived experience, of real life. Some Latin@ kids grow up speaking Spanish at home, some don’t, some kids have moms who work, some don’t! My advice for writing diverse, yet authentic characters is to look around, to research and think deeply, to be inspired by real kids, and to be brave.
Kids deserve to see the world as it truly is. They deserve more than stereotypes and stock characters. They deserve to see themselves, their friends and families represented in fiction. Fantasy is made-up, unreal, imaginative, but I think it has such great potential to communicate truth. And that’s what diversity is.
Your story is set in a specific part of California. How did you choose the setting?
I love my city. Santa Barbara is beautiful and full of interesting people. It’s home. It’s also fair to say that I thought using a familiar setting would make writing the novel easier. I bet it did! But I’m taking a leap in my current WIP and writing a little farther away from home… I’ll let you know how that goes.
What was your submission process like?
My agent, Erica Rand Silverman, was found the old-fashioned way, by sending a query and sample pages. After a couple months, I sent a simple check-in and discovered that my query got lost (which is good because I think I suck at writing queries), but that Erica thought my sample pages were funny. I sent her the rest and we worked on the manuscript a bunch before sending it out.
Were there any major challenges or victories during the revision process?
Ha—yes! Convincing my editor that a pinecone was a worthy and dangerous weapon!
I made an impassioned argument for the “spiky seed fortresses” as weaponry in the war for playground freedom, and then I threatened to throw one at him if he found himself still unconvinced.
His response was something along the lines of, “Jeez, okay—you had me at spiky seed fortresses,” only he said it much more politely.
I’d love to hear more about your amazing cover – it caught my eye instantly when I was looking through 2016 debuts (and I think it will absolutely catch kids’ eyes!). Who designed it? What was the process like?
I LOVE the cover. Emily Harris is the designer and Teagan White is the illustrator. The Teen Librarian Toolbox blog hosted our cover reveal and let Teagan and I interview each other about the process. We talked about EVERYTHING. You can check it out here: http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2015/10/cover-reveal-the-midnight-war-of-mateo-martinez-by-robin-yardi/
So far, what’s been the best (or most interesting) thing about being a debut author?
Being a part of The Sweet Sixteens, getting to know some of the other 2016 debut writers on twitter and reading their ARCs!
What are you planning for your book release? Anything animal or skunk themed? (Will there be fresh cinnamon rolls à la Mrs. Vaz?)
I WISH! Mrs. Vaz’s cinnamon rolls would be delectable, but the bookstore where I’m hosting the release was not excited about food.
So I got some scratch-and-sniff cinnamon roll stickers instead!
LIGHTNING ROUND QUESTIONS
Favorite writing snack? Drink?
Tea, tea, coffee, tea, tea.
What were you reading when you were Mateo’s age?
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and I had this really cool book of Japanese fairy tales that I can’t remember the title of. My favorite story was about a boy who swims down to a palace on the bottom of the ocean with a sea turtle.
Planner or Pantser?
Both. I usually write the first pages in a rush of inspiration, stop and write an outline, then see where that outline takes me. I’ll follow my characters down any dark alley, and am often surprised.
Um, all of them. I’ve been known to name spiders.
My juvenile Sulcata Tortoise, Marigold. I brought her to my last local author visit and she was clearly the star. We are going to grow old together.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
J.M.M. Nuanez writes novels. In her spare time, she likes to read, knit, garden and cook Korean food.
She is represented by Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency and is also a proud member of SCBWI. Despite being a nomad at heart, she loves connecting with other writers because it makes the very solitary endeavor of writing stories truly come alive. Additionally, she is a committed fan of cats, pizza, her husband, and YouTube. Find her at jmmnuanez.com and Twitter.
Nuanez’s debut, MY PERFECT ME, is a middle grade contemporary novel. After their mother’s suicide, Jack and her little brother Birdie had to move in with their uncle Patrick who’s never been very welcoming, and now that Birdie insists on wearing girls’ clothing, Jack is afraid it may cost them the only home they’ve ever really known. Publication is scheduled for summer 2017 from Kathy Dawson/Penguin Young Readers.