A few months ago, a friend recommended a book she knew I’d like. I was sold the moment I saw the cover. Hunters of Chaos is a middle-grade fantasy novel about a boarding school girl who discovers she has ancient powers. Sounds like standard fare. Until you see that the protagonist is Latina. Now, that’s fascinating, something I’d never seen before.
The week of the book’s release I was able to get in touch with Crystal Velasquez, the author. I humbly asked to interview her. Having read her novel, I can attest to how well she hits that preteen voice for her middle grade readers. Once we met in person, I made sure to ask her questions concerning writing specifically for a younger audience, especially with a character of color.
Beyond just interviewing her for the blog, I genuinely enjoyed our conversation. It’s refreshing when you get along with an author whose work you like. Our interview went as follows:
1. What got you into writing in general?
I was always a huge reader, since I was little. Starting around the time when I was in third grade I used to write poetry and short stories. I used to give them to my parents as presents for Christmas or their birthdays. Then in fourth grade I won an essay contest sponsored by the United Negro College Fund. I ended up winning two plane tickets to anywhere in the world I wanted to go. It was the first time I realized that writing could literally take me places. (I had just moved back to NY from Los Angeles at the time, and I missed my friends, so that’s where I went with my dad. Of course now if I had that opportunity I’d go to New Zealand or something! Ha ha…) Anyway, around that time I also read THE OUTSIDERS by S. E. Hinton, which I loved, and I found out that she’d published that book when she was only 17. That made me think if she could do it, maybe I could do. So I started trying to copy what she did–basically The Outsiders with different character names. (Ha!) It was terrible, of course, but it was good practice and it fed my desire to get better.
So when I went to high school, even though I went to a school that specialized in math and science, I sought out all the literature and writing courses I could fit into my schedule. And when I went to Penn State I majored in creative writing. I ended up winning a few writing contests and scholarships, and that let me know I was on the right track. I got a job in book publishing thinking that it would keep me writing. That turned out not to be exactly true since you end up spending so much time on other people’s books. But it did give me great insight into the publishing business and the whole process.
I also met lots of editors, including Stephanie Elliott, who became a close friend of mine. She’s a writer too, and she and I, along with two other friends, formed a writing group, just to keep one another writing. When Stephanie went to work at Alloy, part of her job was to hire authors for ongoing kid’s book series. She gave everyone in the writing group a chance to submit a writing sample and try out, so I did. She was going to hire me to write one of the books, but unfortunately the series didn’t end up getting picked up. Later on I was cruising the writing jobs board on craigslist and saw an ad posted by an editor looking for a writer for a new series of kid’s books. He was looking for someone who had some writing experience and could speak some Spanish. I figured that sounded like me, so I applied. I submitted the writing sample I had given Stephanie along with my resume and cover letter. I didn’t get any reply for three months and forgot all about it. Then I received an email saying that he wanted to hire me to write the Maya & Miguel books. It turned out the editor was from Scholastic. Those became my first four published books.
Years later, Stephanie came to work for Random House Children’s Books as an acquiring editor. She had a great idea one day for a series of new choose-your-adventure books. I thought it was great, so I wrote up an outline and a few sample chapters and she pitched it to her boss. And suddenly I had a three-book deal. That became Your Life, but Better; Your Life, but Cooler; and Your Life, but Sweeter.
Now I’ve been doing some writing projects for Working Partners Ltd., a book packager based in the UK, which is how the Hunters of Chaos books began. Then recently I pitched an idea for a graphic novel to a company that a friend of mine from high school worked with. It got a good response, so I may have another book deal on my hands, but I don’t want to jinx it. And I started working on a YA novel of my own.
Basically, I’ve been really lucky so far. But I still have a long way to go.
2. What got you into writing middle grade?
Really, I feel like I just sort of fell into it. When I was in college, middle grade fiction wasn’t even a thing. I mean, it existed, of course, but it wasn’t the phenomenon it is now, and there were no writing classes at my school specifically tailored for children’s lit. The sample that I wrote for Stephanie when she was at Alloy was actually my first crack at writing for that age group, and I realized at the time that it came pretty naturally to me.
I always say that that’s kind of my mental age level. Sometimes I talk with friends about things that happened in junior high and elementary, and they act like that was a million years ago. They are just SO adult now. But for me in a lot of ways it feels like yesterday. I still vividly remember all the silly falling outs I had with friends, the awkwardness of being the new girl in school, crushes I had on boys in my class, and the more serious stuff I was going through at home. I clearly remember what it was like to be accepted by the cool kids and also what it was like to be an outcast. Elementary and middle school were such a mine field when it came to navigating friendships and balancing home and school!
Part of why I remember so much, though, is because I started keeping a diary at 13. Before I tried my hand at writing middle grade fiction for the first time, I went back and re-read all those diary entries from when I was that age. I wanted to see how I thought about things, how I expressed it. What kind of things did I consider important? What conversations did I have with my friends? It turned out to be a great way to get into the mindset. And now I find that having gotten my foot in the door, one thing keeps leading to another. So I’m really lucky to have gotten the opportunities that have come my way.
3. Where do your middle school stories come from?
For the Your Life books, it was a mix of the editor and I working together, and me culling things from my own life or from my niece! (She was the age that I was writing about at the time, so it was perfect.) For example, in the first book, the main character is asked to be in a fashion show. Well, that did actually happen to me when I was in fourth grade. My next-door neighbor’s aunt was a clothing designer and she had designed a line of clothes for kids. I got to be in the show along with my next-door neighbor. I also had a friend/frenemy who was a lot like Mona, who isn’t exactly nice to the main character.
And in Your Life, but Cooler, the main character has to decide if she’s going to try out for a solo in the choir. I included that because I was in the choir all through high school and college, but I never had the guts to audition for a solo. Plus it seemed relevant since shows like American Idol were so popular. Writing the quizzes came easily because I was always a huge fan of the personality quizzes in teen magazines like YM and Jane when I was younger. The quizzes were always the first things I turned to. Oh, who am I kidding? I still love them. For example, yes, I know which house I would be in at Hogwarts. (Gryffindor)
As for the Hunters of Chaos books, as I said, they began as the brainchild of the editors I work with. There was a real desire to create something culturally diverse, and a story with female characters that was also action-packed. But all the interactions between the characters–especially as they dealt with race and class, that comes from personal experience too. My family didn’t have much money when I was growing up, and we moved around a lot. So when I entered my third elementary school in as many years, I was definitely the odd girl out for a while. I was one of only a handful of minorities there, and a lot of the kids came from upper middle class families and had trust funds and lived in actual houses–all of which was foreign to me. Ana feeling like a fish out of water was a familiar feeling for me, as was her closeness to her family.
4. How do you channel that inner MG voice for what you write?
As I said earlier, I think that’s just my mental age level. But sometimes when I feel like I’ve lost touch with what kids that age sound like, I’ll watch TV shows on Nickelodeon or flip through teen magazines. I don’t have kids of my own yet, but almost all my friends do, so I’m around kids a lot. And now I’ve started doing school visits as an author and get to interact with my core audience. Not to mention my parents both work with kids. My father is an occupational therapist who works with zero to three-year-olds, and my mom just got her degree in early childhood education.
But really, I think it’s just about being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, no matter what age. I think kids respond to fiction that doesn’t talk down to them or mock them. Maybe emotions are a bit more intense at that age, and confusion about life runs deep. But I don’t think any adult can say that they’ve hit an age where they’re never confused, never scared, never feel left out or unheard, never long to go on an adventure.
So I just think about all the feelings I have and put them in a middle grade context. But of course it’s hard not to let adult me interfere too much. At times it’s like getting to go back and write a story for your younger self, knowing all the things you know now. There’s this urge to tell the characters, “Don’t worry. It’s all going to be all right.”
5. Do you feel it’s important to write characters of color and to have more authors of color?
Absolutely! I feel like that is finally starting to change. But it’s so long overdue. I think every kid wants to have their own story told; they want to be reflected in literature just as much as everyone else. That’s part of why the Maya & Miguel books and the show were so popular. And how far would it go toward race relations in this country if kids were taught at an early age that anyone can be the main character, the hero, the villain? I like to think that Harry Potter would have been just as successful if he had been black.
Not only that, but there are rich and diverse stories out there that aren’t being told. Take The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, which just came out and is getting great reviews. It’s based on folktales she was told by her family growing up in Trinidad. Or Re Jane by Patricia Park, which tells the story of a half-Korean, half-American girl growing up in Queens who travels to Korea and finds herself struggling between two cultures. Bottom line, it just doesn’t make sense for there to be such an absence of characters of color (and not just sidekick characters, but main characters), as if people of color don’t exist! So of course we need more minority authors. That is not say that a white author can’t write a novel featuring minority characters or vice versa. (One of the writing projects I did a while back starred a main character who was a green-eyed blonde living in the South in the 1950’s.)
But there is something powerful about getting to speak from personal experience and tell your own story. And I don’t buy that mainstream audiences couldn’t possibly relate to these stories. If I can find something to relate to in a story about a white orphan boy growing up in England, why couldn’t a white child relate to a story about a Puerto Rican kid growing up in New York City? We have so much in common across all cultures and nationalities, and inclusive literature would go a long way toward helping everyone realize that.
Not to mention, I want kids of color to realize that they can be writers. Some of the kids in the schools I’ve visited in predominantly Latino communities in the Bronx told me I was the first writer of Puerto Rican decent that they’d ever met or heard of, which is just sad. Especially since some of them wanted to be writers but didn’t think they could be. Clearly the publishing industry still has some work to do in this area.
Learn more about Crystal Velasquez at her website.
Follow her blog here.
Follow her adventures on Twitter: Follow @cvelasquez6