Monday, July 09, 2012

New Voice: Sarah Warren on Dolores Huerta: A Hero To Migrant Workers

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sarah Warren is the first-time author of Dolores: A Hero To Migrant Workers, illustrated by Robert Casilla (Marshall Cavendish, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Dolores is a teacher, a mother, and a friend. She wants to know why her students are too hungry to listen, why they don't have shoes to wear to school. Dolores is a warrior, an organizer, and a peacemaker. 

When she finds out that the farm workers in her community are poorly paid and working under dangerous conditions, she stands up for their rights.

This is the story of Dolores Huerta and the extraordinary battle she waged to ensure fair and safe work places for migrant workers. The powerful text, paired with Robert Casilla's vibrant watercolor-and-pastel illustrations, brings Dolores's amazing journey to life. A timeline, additional reading, articles, websites, and resources for teachers are included.

Could you tell us the story of "the call" or "the email" when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?


I had just given up writing for publication forever and ever and I had good reason. Children’s literature was ruining everything. I have proof! See for yourself:

1. My personal life was a mess. How could I spare time or emotional energy for other people when my snotty little muse needed my full attention? Besides, it took billions of hours to edit, go to school and do all the networking and critiquing necessary to make a story publishable. What with all the full-time working, eating and sleeping I had to do too, something had to give.

2. My professional life as a manager was killing me. Before ambition struck, I sparkled at work, now I moped. It just wasn’t fair. I was clearly destined to be a celebrity author. Before, if I just worked harder I was successful. Hadn’t I tried my hardest?

The pile of rejection letters tried to reason with me. “Oh Sarah,” they said, “Wouldn’t you be happier if you just gave in and focused on your day job?” They were right. Trying to burn the candle at both ends was making me bad at everything.

Besides, successful writers always said you have to love writing so much you’d do it for free. Maybe I could focus on the “do it for free” part. I could never give up the sensation of creating a story and sharing it with my students or my writing group. I gloried in the satisfaction of an effective revision. I could keep the thrill of connection with my readers, I would just have a much more intimate audience than I had hoped.

3. A two-year apprenticeship program offered by The Loft Literary Center was over. The opportunities to network and write with a cohort of authors, educators and editors were gone. I had two chances to share my work with publishers and although one had expressed interest I hadn’t heard back. I had gotten my shot and I’d blown it. My ego was the size of a pumpkin seed.

I had come to a decision. I needed to stop driving myself crazy. I would go on a diet. I would simplify my life. I would adjust my expectations. I would be happy.

Then I got the call. It was the week before Thanksgiving. I was moping at my desk (my renewed sparkle hadn’t kicked in yet). The phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number so I refused to answer it. I will never, ever make that mistake again.

My awesome future editor left a very mysterious message. She let me know she’d like to talk about my manuscript. She told me she’d be out of the office for the next week.

Wait, out of the office? For the next week? I needed to know what her call meant now, now, now!

Lisa on writing for kids, full-time
I immediately contacted everyone I’ve ever met to pick apart the conversation, the tone, the length of the call, the time of day it happened.

Finally, my mentor Lisa Bullard, an amazing writer and instructor talked me back into my brain. “Well, she wouldn’t call you to tell you she didn’t like it. What editor wants to have that conversation?”

It was true. She liked my manuscript. She told me so a week later.

As a nonfiction writer, what first inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

When I was a child and I saw pictures of women, I would stare at them. I know that sounds creepy, but stay with me. I would hold the catalog, or picture book or newspaper in my little lap and run my eyes over every feminine inch.

I gazed with purpose. I had questions to answer. Would I look like her? What made her beautiful? What made her grown up? Did she look strong, or happy, or like anybody I knew? How would I need to transform in order to be more like this woman?

 I was a mixed-race kid. I didn’t see many ladies who looked like me. I figured I’d have a whole lot of change ahead to measure up to what my scavenged images had taught me about womanhood.

I grew up into a preschool teacher and became intensely interested in the media my students consumed. Most of my kids lived in poverty. Many were children of color. Most of my books did not show people who looked and lived like they did.



Also, there was the mom thing. As a dabbling writer for children I’d heard about this. I’d heard good authors, normally very righteous people, were taught to “kill the mom”. Child protagonists could never get into the trouble necessary for a satisfying story with a nurturing mom around. So, Little Mermaids grow up mom-less, bullied by over-bearing dads, Harry Potters are orphans and Max is ostracized and sent to his room where he roams free and wild.

No good moms made the number of accessible, female images even smaller. This was bad news for my kids. This was bad news for kids everywhere. When they gazed at books and tried to form pictures of what they might be as leaders, as heroes, and as adults, what did the images tell them?

Well, you probably guessed it, I wrote Dolores: A Hero to Migrant Workers for my kids. I know, a writer on a soapbox is no fun at all; I hope you won’t hold it against me.

The truth is, as a teacher, I needed this book as much as I thought they did. I wanted an accessible, child-friendly biography. I wanted to tell the story of a woman who looked like the moms I served and the women my girls would grow up to be.

This hero would not be a sponge, defined by the shape of her circumstances or her peers. The story of her dynamic, complex nature was just as important as her exploits. Rather than try to sort through the timeline of what was, at the time the standard biography (birth, life, death) I wanted to share a slice of her leadership that revealed the expansive hero we know she became.

Verla Kay on Rough, Tough Charley

I love picture book biographies that explore the lives of extraordinary people in unique ways. Some personal favorites are:

Despite the will of my passion and moral indignation, my book wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it weren’t for its illustrations. Robert Casilla, the illustrator of Dolores: A Hero to Migrant Workers, created art that brought my words to life.

When I share this story with my preschoolers, they are entranced by the images of Dolores as she matures and pushes forward. The colors and realism in the pictures root the events and characters in our world so completely. There is a picture of a group of smiling workers and kids. My kids love that one. It is a victory moment they can share in because the faces are so friendly and familiar.

It’s so much easier to have a conversation about the reality of true heroes with my superhero-obsessed group when they can look at these images and see their own potential for greatness.

Sarah's bookshelf.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Anneographies: "children's author Anne Bustard on her favorite picture book biographies and a few collected biographies, too, birthday by birthday."

1 comment:

Ashley Hope Pérez said...

I am always behind on my blog reading, but I am so glad I didn't miss this one... even if I am coming to it a bit late!

Sarah! I'm grateful for this book, as a mom, as a writer, and as someone who cares about the stories you are helping to tell. I just requested DOLORES HUERTA from our wonderful library here in Bloomington, IN (you'll be pleased to know they'd already bought it!), and I'll look forward to reading it with our son.

I think it's so funny that your bookshelf is organized by color. My husband would approve... he keeps rearranging my books by size, which drives me crazy!

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