(Photo by Stephanie Bernaba)
Anika Aldamuy Denise https://www.anikadenise.com/ is the author of an astonishing array of picture books, from the sweet Baking Day at Grandma’s which was illustrated by her husband, Christopher Denise, to the rollicking Monster Trucks. Then came her glittering Carmen books (Staring Carmen and Lights, Camera, Carmen) and her powerful biographies of Latinx women, Planting Stories: the life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre and the newly released A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno.
Planting Stories racked up no fewer than 15 awards, including the coveted ALA Pura Belpre Honor. A number of Anika’s books have been inspired by her Puerto Rican heritage. While her stories are aimed at young readers, many delve deep. In fact, I recently used her thought-provoking The Love Letter with my adult English Language Learner.
Thank you so much for being my guest today, Anika. I’m in awe of the versatility of your work. What initially led you to writing picture books?
Thanks, Linda! I think it was my husband’s children’s book illustration career and seeing his process of choosing which manuscripts he felt connected to and wanted to illustrate that sparked my desire to try writing a picture book of my own. Though I was a professional writer, I’d never written for children. So I read as many picture books as I could, joined SCBWI, and was fortunate to have a mentor in Chris’s editor at the time, Patti Gauch, who really helped me understand and appreciate the art of writing picture books.
You’ve explored so many avenues with your writing. What was your vision of a career in children’s literature when you began? How has that vision changed? What led you into each new genre?
At first, I wasn’t confident enough to believe a career in children’s books was possible. I didn’t give up my day job(s) and pursued children’s book writing on the side. I remember reaching an inflection point when I realized that if I wanted a meaningful career writing for kids, I had to commit to it fully. So I began researching agents and was fortunate to sign on with Emily van Beek at Folio Literary. She helped me articulate the kinds of stories that excited me. And while I loved writing books for Chris to illustrate (and still do), I also had a desire to explore identity, culture, and girl-power in my stories. I’m not sure my vision changed necessarily. It’s more that I gained the confidence to try new things.
What was it like creating a book with your husband? How was the process different when someone else was illustrating your words?
It’s always such a joy to work on books together. They’re often inspired by our daughters so it’s fun to celebrate and preserve those memories in picture book form. The process is a little different when we work together in that each of us is more involved with the other’s process than we would be if we were working with other people. He helps me develop the manuscript and I consult on sketches and final art. If something isn’t working, he can ask me to tweak the text directly without an editor as go-between.
Your earlier books were fiction, but two of your recent titles have been biographies. How does your approach to a nonfiction differ from your approach to fiction? Do you prefer one over the other?
My approach is different in some ways and similar in others. For both, I need to find the heart of the story, make sure the structure is working, the language is lyrical, and the ending is satisfying. I want both to have kid-appeal and not to feel too adult or (yikes!) boring. With my nonfiction projects, the research component is a heavier lift. But even for fictional picture books I research and fact check. My Google searches are filled with random questions like, “How spikey are hedgehogs?” Ha.
You grew up in Queens, but you live near the water in small-town Rhode Island. Your dad was Puerto Rican and your mom Italian. You and Christopher have three beautiful daughters. How does your personal story echo in your work?
I think my personal story echoes, to different degrees, in every story I write. Food, family, the arts, poetry, language, urban and rural settings are threads that run through my stories and have run through my life.
It was surreal to be honest. I hoped people would read and like it. I knew that even though books existed about Pura Belpré, I had something to add to the literary canon. The journey became especially poignant because I lost my father during the period of researching and writing it. When the book was recognized with awards, I felt proud not only as an author but as my father’s daughter. I knew he was smiling down on me. The most exciting moment was getting “the call” from the Pura Belpré Awards committee. There were so many wonderful Latinx stories out that year. And a book about Belpré had already won an honor. So I wasn’t expecting it. It was evening, not early morning, when the call came. And when I answered, I literally dropped to the floor and could not believe it.
A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno, Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer was just released. Tell us all about it!
It’s an American Dream story and an immigrant’s story. Rita Moreno (Rosita) came here when she was 5 years old from Puerto Rico. Her beginnings were humble. Her mother worked two or three jobs at a time to pay for their tiny apartment and dance lessons for Rosita. Even after she landed Broadway roles and a movie studio contract she was discriminated against as a Puerto Rican woman. There were sacrifices, joys, trials, and triumphs. I hope young readers will enjoy learning about her and feel inspired by her talent and perseverance.
Many of your anticipated author events were cancelled because of the pandemic. How did you deal with that? Did you find other ways to reach out to your readers?
At first, it was really hard. This past summer, ALA was cancelled and that meant not getting to go to the Belpré luncheon and celebrate with the other honorees and my publisher. I had to mourn that. And then I had to move on. There was a new book coming that deserved my attention. Even though I couldn’t do in-person events, with the help of libraries, literacy organizations, and amazing independent booksellers across the country, I was able to connect with readers virtually for story times, panels, and book talks. I’m also offering free story times to classrooms throughout the school year. Teachers can email me for a link to the sign-up sheet and I’ll Zoom into their class, read, and answer a few questions.
What is your advice to those who would like to write picture books?
First, make sure you know what a picture book is. It’s not a chapter book. It’s not a lesson. It’s not that funny story your Aunt Irma told you about the squirrel who keeps getting into her attic. (Well, maybe that’s a start but it’s going to need one or two more key elements—such as a plot.) Pick up a copy of Linda Ashman’s primer The Nuts & Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books. Become a member of your local SCBWI chapter. Read picture books for the joy of it and for the master class they can deliver in 32, 40, or 48 pages. Then give writing one a go. And while you’re writing, think about what you loved in your favorite picture books as a kid. What made you laugh? What made you worry? What made you wonder?
What can we expect from you in the future? More picture book fiction? More biographies? Something entirely new? Are you working on a project now?
I have three new projects in the works. And they are all super-secret right now because they haven’t been announced yet. One is fiction. The other two are nonfiction. And somewhere in a deep, dark, neglected corner of my works-in-progress drawer, there is a middle grade novel, that once I meet all my deadlines, I plan to get back to. Middle grade is the next “new thing” I need to gain the confidence to try. Wish me luck!
Good luck with that middle grade novel. I know you’ll rock it! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with our readers, Anika.
Thank you for having me, Linda! Be safe and have a happy, healthy holiday season.
You, too, Anika, and all our readers. If you want to find out more about Anika and her books, visit https://www.anikadenise.com/