Author Interview with Sonia Patel

raniWe welcome debut author Sonia Patel to the blog. Rani Patel in Full Effect hit the shelves last month and we were able to review it here. Rani is a young woman trying to sort out who she is apart from the father who has been sexually abusing her for years. She feels strong and in control when she’s rapping, but when she’s with her new boyfriend (a much older man) or on her own, she falls into old destructive patterns. Sonia Patel has created a powerful and intense novel and she’s here to talk about it with us today.

Many readers wonder about the line between reality and fiction. In your author’s note and on your website, I noticed many of the experiences that shaped Rani may have carried traces of your past – starting with her heritage. Can you tell us a little about growing up as a first generation Indian American in Hawaii?

The first word that comes to mind with that question is isolative.

My Gujarati parents, like Rani’s parents, had a traditional Hindu arranged marriage in India. They immigrated to New York and that’s where I was born. My early years were spent there and in Connecticut. Both places had a large Gujarati immigrant community and we spent practically every weekend with other Gujarati immigrant family or friends. This was quite important for my mother who clung tightly to her Gujarati social network and culture. So it came as quite a shock to her when my father decided to move to Moloka’i. Like Rani’s family, we were the only Indian family on the island (compared to the other Hawaiian islands, Moloka’i is the island with the largest percentage of Native Hawaiians) at the time. It was very difficult for my mother to be cut off from her Gujarati connections, especially because my parent’s marriage was rocky. Once on Moloka’i, I basically lost all connection with my Gujarati culture because our family fell apart. Though from the outside, no one could tell. All I knew was that I was glad I was brown because at least I fit in with most of the kids at school, even though when I opened my mouth I couldn’t speak pidgin at first and sounded totally haole (foreign with my mainland accent). The only thing that reminded me that I was Gujarati was the food my mother cooked and the Bollywood films she would watch. Other than that, I felt basically culture-less. Unless you count my father as a culture.

Moving to a more difficult question about your life – what was it like to look back at your own family issues as you worked through Rani’s story?

It was—is—emotionally charged. I’d been writing rap as a way to cope with my issues, then later my experiences with treating patients. This kept things kind of at arm’s length. When I realized I had a story to tell that involved parts of me and parts of teen/women I’d treated and known, things became real. Fast. I couldn’t stop the story from flowing onto paper. The way different teens deal with the effects of family dysfunction and covert and overt familial sexual abuse is often similar. I never had a psychiatrist to discuss and work through my experiences when I was growing up, so I’d been putting the pieces of my life together haphazardly. When I started writing Rani, things came together and made more sense. When I read snippets from the book it still evokes feelings of sadness, hurt, anger, shame, and joy.

Sexual abuse may not be an easy topic to read about, but it’s a reality for a large number of young adults. As you’re sharing this novel, what kind of reactions have you been hearing from readers or potential readers?

Most adults and teens seem to get it. They appreciate that Rani’s father abused her and that the abuse wired Rani’s brain to think, feel, and act in negative ways that set her up for recreating the abuse with other men. They understand that Rani isn’t dumb and though they feel mad at her at times, they have empathy that it’s part of her process in being a trauma survivor. Rani doesn’t have the words to describe the covert and overt incest and family problems so she speaks through her negative thoughts, feelings and actions. Most people seem to get that it takes awhile for her to gain insight into this and so it’ll take time before she can begin to make positive changes in her life.

There are the few readers who think Rani is dumb and too naive. They can’t understand why she drinks, hangs out with an older man who sweet talks her, and basically, to them, seems to set herself up for being raped. They get mad at her and then seem to forget empathy for the trauma induced brain changes that cause her to repeat negative behaviors. A couple of them have said that she’s a tease. It was almost like they were blaming the victim. All I can say to that is perhaps those readers did not truly understand my author’s note at the end of the book. Those readers don’t seem to appreciate that a survivor of covert and overt incest has been a sexual object or in that role for years and that the way they think, feel, and act has been hardwired into their brains. They’ve learned that that is all they are good for. Those readers don’t seem to understand that survivors can’t just become empowered and feminist simply because being raped is wrong. Of course rape is wrong, but a survivor of chronic incest has been conditioned to expect nothing more for themselves and to repeat negative patterns. Until they gain insight, they will likely continue to engage in the same negative behavior. So healing starts with insight and insight can only begin when they find the words and support to describe their traumatic experiences.

Throughout the book, music empowers and brings healing to Rani. What is it about hip-hop specifically that can create such change?

For Rani, the power of hip hop was multifactorial. Rap was front and center. The powerful beats and poetry allowed her to express the misogyny she experienced in a way that wasn’t encouraged in her life otherwise. It resonated with her and gave her a sense of the self-worth she still didn’t have. Plus, she was exposed to hip hop during its golden age—when there was tremendous political,social, and musical innovation in rap. Rap was building its identity and this was symbolic of how Rani was also building her identity. Additionally there was hip hop fashion and dance that allowed Rani to create her own identity separate from her abusive father and distant mother.

Does hip-hop still play a significant role in your life?

YES! I can’t imagine my life without hip hop music, rap, fashion (especially my kicks), and dance. I still write rap. It’s still my primary form of self-therapy. I feel the most like myself when I’m writing rap or poetry. Also, when I’m sportin’ my latest fly hip hop outfit. And when I travel, I always look for hip hop clubs. Recently I was in Oakland and got to shake my thang at two such clubs with amazing hip hop music. Overseas, Seoul and Tokyo had a killer hip hop music and dance scene.

Hip-hop is sometimes included in discussions about poetry since there is such attention to the sound and impact of the words. Do you write a lot of poetry and do you have plans to publish a verse novel or volume of poetry? I would totally read either.

Awww! That is so sweet! Thank you. I actually love writing poetry, especially poetry that I can perform. Like rap, poetry helps me express issues that I feel passionate about or issues I’m struggling with. Recently, I performed one at a local slam called Stop Visually Assualting Me (&Yourself)! It’s based on the issues of how many of my teenage girl patients are being lured into a false sense of self-worth by posting revealing body shots on social media. Body reveal in social media seems to be turning into a horrible epidemic that’s hurting the youth I treat. Of course I discuss these issues with my teen patients, but it’s so troubling to me that I had to write about it in a poetic manner.

There are very few young adult novels that address Native sovereignty. What led you to include this in the narrative?

I was fortunate enough to have some amazing mentors in the fight to protect the water of Moloka’i from developers. Some of them were also active in sovereignty issues and actually most locals on the island are activists in one way or another. Whether it’s testifying at hearings. Or protesting. Or choosing to live off the land in ancient Hawaiian ways. My empathy and support has always been towards oppressed and subjugated cultures because I come from one—Indians at the hands of the British, being a colored kid on the mainland, etc. I am honored that I got to participate in much of the activism around the water issues on Moloka’i growing up. That was something my father was involved in, much like Rani’s father in the book.

I had to include those issues because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be depicting Moloka’i’s vibe accurately.

What’s up next for you as a writer?

I am currently working another YA novel. It’s a love story about a trans Gujarati boy from the city and a girl from rural Hau’ula and involves issues of sex trafficking, depression, alcoholism, bulimia, and complex family issues. The story is based on my work with my teen patients. It’s a tribute to my patients who struggle with so many things I wish they didn’t have to…

I wish you had asked me….

If in the past I’d shaved my head like Rani.


If in the past I’d dyed the stubble blond like Rani.


We’re always on the lookout for great books to read. Have you read anything lately that moved you to laughter or tears?

My kids are into graphic novels and I recently read the Barefoot Gen series again. My son actually introduced me to it. He devoured that series in a couple of weeks and was so moved he wrote to the author in Japan. The author passed away but his wife wrote a nice letter back. I also mentioned the series in Rani and so I decided to read it again. Laughter and tears fo’ shua!

Interview with Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Shame the StarsToday we welcome Guadalupe Garcia McCall to share about her most recent book Shame the StarsI really enjoyed reading this amazing historical romance and was excited to be able to find out more about the book.

Publisher’s summary: Eighteen-year-old Joaquín del Toro’s future looks bright. With his older brother in the priesthood, he’s set to inherit his family’s Texas ranch. He’s in love with Dulceña—and she’s in love with him. But it’s 1915, and trouble has been brewing along the US-Mexico border. On one side, the Mexican Revolution is taking hold; on the other, Texas Rangers fight Tejano insurgents, and ordinary citizens are caught in the middle.

As tensions grow, Joaquín is torn away from Dulceña, whose father’s critical reporting on the Rangers in the local newspaper has driven a wedge between their families. Joaquín’s own father insists that the Rangers are their friends, and refuses to take sides in the conflict. But when their family ranch becomes a target, Joaquín must decide how he will stand up for what’s right.

Shame the Stars is a rich reimagining of Romeo and Juliet set in Texas during the explosive years of Mexico’s revolution. Filled with period detail, captivating romance, and political intrigue, it brings Shakespeare’s classic to life in an entirely new way.

Crystal’s Review


The Texas-Mexico border during the Mexican Revolution is an intriguing time and place for a novel. How did you come to the idea of that particular setting?

I really wasn’t looking for an idea. The story’s main character, Joaquín, came to me fully fledged, wanting to tell me his story in the middle of the night. I had gone to bed upset after reading about the lynching of Mexicanos in South Texas during the matanza, the rebellion of 1915, in Dr. Johnson’s book, Revolution in Texas. My son, James, had introduced me to the book that night, and I’d stayed up late pouring over the details, looking at the horrific picture of two Texas Rangers proudly sitting on their horses with the ropes still tied around the corpses of two so-called “rebels” laying in front of them. That picture became a postcard. People bought it and sent it to their loved ones. The sadness that overwhelmed me as I thought about all the people who suffered at the hands of the Rangers and their nefarious posses overwhelmed me, and I went to bed dejected that night.

At around 3 o’clock that morning, Joaquín’s voice awakened me. I could hear him talking to me, telling me his story. “Me llamo Joaquín del Toro, and I live at Rancho Las Moras,” he said, and after the third time I heard his voice, I got up, went to the bathroom, put down the toilet seat, and started writing on my notepad, because I thought it was just going to be a small thread, a small poem perhaps, something to get rid of the ghost of those horrible pictures I’d seen online of Mexicanos lynched in the chaparral. Well, it turned out to be much more than that, and five years later, the book is finally done and I’m glad I got up and listened to Joaquín. His story is important to me. His voice lives in my heart.

Do you see connections between conflicts of that time and situations/events in the present?

Oh, yes. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of prejudice against Hispanics in this country. The current political climate is riddled with anger and hate and intolerance. But there is a lot of support too. Thank God we have people who see us for who we really are, as hard-working, respectful citizens of this country. I became an American citizen because I love this country. I love it as much as I love my Mexico. American has shaped me as much as Mexico has shaped me, and for that reason alone I love living on the border. I am no different than most of the Mexican-Americans I know, good, honest people straddling two worlds, two languages, two loves.

How did writing Shame the Stars differ from writing your previous novels?

Shame the Stars didn’t take as long as Under the Mesquite took to write. I was working on that manuscript for about 10 years, but it did take longer than Summer of the Mariposas. The reason is that I didn’t have all the details when I started working on Shame the Stars. I had only read Dr. Johnson’s book once, and done some superficial digging around online. I was pretty foggy on the details, so I wrote the first draft, in verse (the original novel came to me in verse) before I lost the passion, while Joaquín’s voice was still fresh in my mind. When I was done with that first draft, over 100 pages of poetry, I did more research. As I researched, the storyline changed. The plot grew and grew, as more and more layers started revealing themselves. When I read through the archived newspapers in the Library of Congress, I found more and more of the storyline in the actual historical events surrounding the “rebellion of 1915.” I included some of those newspaper clippings in the novel, not just as evidence, but to foreshadow events in the novel and build suspense because they are so important to the storyline.

What was your research process like?

I read Dr. Johnson’s book, Revolution in Texas, many, many times, making notes on the sidebars, putting sticky notes everywhere, underlining, highlighting, making sure I really understood the conflict, the history of South Texas, what led up to the “rebellion” and the actual matanza. I also went through the archives in the Library of Congress, counting myself lucky that 100 years had gone by and I had access to those newspapers online. I also went to the central library, the orange building in downtown San Antonio, and read other books that dealt with the History of Mexican-Americans in the U.S. Most of my research was done online though, from home. Every time I found something relevant, I would print it out, highlight, and write all over it. When I wasn’t at my computer, I would read on my phone. I have so many screenshots and pictures on my Samsung dealing with the matanza, I might never get rid of that phone. Everything I read, screenshot, highlighted, and marked up served a purpose, and that was to inform my writing. Not everything went into the novel, but it helped me to see the big picture, to find my bearings as I wrote about a time and place I could only imagine.

How do you balance writing, presenting, teaching, and the other aspects of your life?

I’m a zombie. I don’t sleep. No, seriously. It just has to do with passion. I’m as passionate about teaching as I am about writing and speaking. I love my jobs. When I was a young mother, I was all about the mothering: the bottles, the little league, the trips to the theme parks. With a soccer-mom van and a book in my hand, I dedicated myself to the boys, James, Steven, and Jason. I loved being a mom. Now, these books are my children. They are, however, more than my life. They are the other means by which I inform students. I look at writing as an extension of my classroom. The way I will keep “teaching” long after I retire from the classroom, long after I’m gone. Teaching is the gift God gave me. Writing is the vehicle. It’s a great life, and I am humbled by the gift of it every day I get to live it.

How much do you share about your writing life with your students?

I try not to get too excited about my own success, especially in front of my students. They need me to be their teacher, not some self-important, stuck-up famous person. Most of them know I am a writer. They google me, so I can’t ignore it either. Mostly, I share my struggles with them as an example of how even published writers have to work hard at writing. When I am teaching them to revise, I share my revision notes from my editor on the LCD projector. I show them what good writing notes to your writing partner look like (Thank you, Stacy Whitman). I show them that a good editor is honest but kind, truthful but respectful. I also show them my revisions. My computer program tracks changes in different colors, so they get to see how the original text in black changed. How I layered in the blue text during revision 1, the purple text in revision 2, the red text in revision 3, and so on. It shocks them to see how much revision work and thoughtfulness goes into writing. So when I ask them to revise a one-page essay, they are less reluctant to do the work.

What’s ahead for you? Are you able to share anything you’re currently writing/revising?

I’m in the process of finishing up the sequel to Shame the Stars, tentatively titled, Estrella’s Long Journey Home. It is set in Monteseco, sixteen years after the rebellion, and follows the repatriation of the del Toros into Mexico in the winter of 1931.


Photo provider by author


Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the award winning author of Under the Mesquite, a novel in verse, and Summer of the Mariposas. Her poetry has also appeared in many publications. McCall was born in Mexico and immigrated with her family to the U.S. at age six. She grew up in Texas and is currently a high school English teacher in San Antonio.

Interview with Zetta Elliott

img_0108We welcome Zetta Elliott to the blog today. She’s an educator and a Black feminist writer of more than 20 books. After reading A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads for our group discussion (posted yesterday), we were eager to find out more about these books and how they came to exist. We’re thankful Zetta Elliott took the time to respond to our questions.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your writing journey?

Invisibility is the biggest challenge. I’ll always write–as long as I’m able–and I don’t need anyone’s permission to do that. But for a long time, I believed I needed an editor’s permission to become an author. And so for over a decade I waited and waited, and sent out query letters, and filed away all the rejections. And then I had an award-winning picture book published in 2008 and thought the doors would open wide, but the publishing industry remained closed to me. So then I started advocating for greater diversity and equity in publishing, and finally turned to self-publishing to get more of my stories into the hands of kids/teens. And then review outlets and many libraries banned self-published titles despite claiming to be desperate for diverse books…so I gave up some of my advocacy work and focused on getting more books into the world (I have two more coming out next month). I don’t think about book sales that much; I want the books to exist and to be available to those who are looking for mirrors (see below). I’m leading more workshops on indie/community-based publishing these days, and that makes me feel visible and valued because I’m showing other aspiring writers how to make their own books outside of the traditional system.

When interacting with teen readers of your books, what responses have stood out to you?


It definitely means a lot when a teen tells me they see themselves in my books. One young woman took a picture holding up The Deep and said, “Finally, I can see myself on the cover of a book.” For me, writing a book that connects with ONE reader is enough–that’s success to me. But corporate publishers measure success in sales and awards, and they don’t market books to the kids/teens that I teach. I had another young woman write me a letter assuring me she knows there’s magic everywhere. I always tell kids that magic can happen to anyone anywhere, but books rarely reflect that. So I love that my books show kids of color at the center of a magical adventure–my books are aspirational, in a way, because they show what’s real but also what’s possible.

Are you working on a writing project you’re able to tell us about?

Right now I’m working on two books–a picture book called Milo’s Museum and a YA fantasy called The Return (sequel to The Deep). I went to Senegal two summers ago and started that novel but other projects took priority and now I’m finally ready to finish it. I wrote Milo’s Museum last spring; it’s about a little girl who doesn’t see her community reflected in the museum and so she starts her own museum in her backyard. My agent sent it out but no one was interested. I hoped to have it ready in time for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but it will probably need another week.

How did you initially get involved with the Weeksville Heritage Center?

I discovered Weeksville in the late ’90s when I was teaching a group of middle school girls in an after school program in Bed-Stuy. We were mapping our community and I was amazed to learn that some churches nearby had participated in the Underground Railroad. A trip to the Brooklyn Historical Society introduced me to Maritcha Lyons and her first-hand account of the NYC Draft Riots of 1863 led me to Weeksville and the historic houses that still stand in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. When I finished AWAM in 2003, I printed a dummy and took it over to WHC but got no response. Over the years I sent more books and always received a thank you note, but nothing else. Then Tia Powell-Harris became executive director and I met her in 2014. Within a few weeks she reached out about ways to collaborate and the next year I served 2 terms as writer-in-residence. I taught writing classes for kids and adults, hosted a salon in the 1930s house, and right now we’re working on a picture book that the center will publish themselves. Each class I worked with published an anthology, so I was able to use my expertise as an indie author. Those books are a prime example of community-based publishing.

What drew you to this time period?

I’ve always loved history and could write about any time period, really (a Viking novel is in the works), but the NYC Draft Riots were particularly interesting to me. My dissertation was on representations of rape and lynching in African American literature, and it frustrated me that people assumed acts of racial violence only happened in the South. So writing about the North was a deliberate choice and NYC has so much history that many kids/teens never learn in school (or learn in a way that’s uninteresting).

What interesting things did you learn while researching the series?

I learned SO much! It was really hard to edit and decide which events and/or historical figures to include in the novels. World building is very challenging–I wanted to give a sense of what was happening in the country AND in the larger world, but I also had to mark regional differences (Judah in the South and Genna in NYC). The hanging of Captain Gordon was interesting because many other slavers got off but Lincoln decided to make an example of this one White man who kept transporting enslaved people despite the ban on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Intersectionality is addressed multiple times in both A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads. One scene that made it especially clear was when Dr. Brant summarily dismisses Genna’s desire to study psychiatry not only because she is a Negro, but also a woman. Genna begins to see how this affects her in particular, but also how it plays out with others around her. Do you know of other authors who are also writing intersectional literature for young adults and/or how important is it that young adult writers address this?

I know that the Twinjas (publishing under the name GL Tomas) are deeply invested in deliberately and consciously writing about intersectional identities. But the truth is, even though a Black feminist scholar developed the theory (Kimberle Chrenshaw), everyone has an intersectional identity–it just isn’t always named, which is a function of privilege. So it was significant (and controversial) when Kirkus decided to start naming the race of ALL characters instead of leaving Whites as the unnamed default. Class is rarely mentioned unless a character is impoverished, and ability only comes up when a character has a disability. I’m learning to think differently about gender so that I don’t erase the specific experiences of transgender people. Some writers object to naming multiple aspects of identity in fiction, but that only preserves privilege and I do think YA authors can play a role in exposing bias in our society.

As a teacher and book club member, I appreciated the inclusion of the discussion topics, activities, and research at the end of the books. One of the questions was, “If you could change something in your life simply by making a wish, what would it be?” How would you answer that question?

Whoa–that’s a tough one! I met some teenage girls in DC last summer; they made an awesome video and their wishes were mostly for their families and communities. In this era of Black Lives Matter, it’s hard to put your own needs/desires ahead of others’. As an introvert I wish I had more daring. It’s hard for me to be open, and I’m very protective of my alone time/dream time. I crave security but that’s not the path I’ve chosen. Sometimes I wish I could embrace uncertainty instead of trying to anticipate and avoid problems before they even arise. They say, “Leap and the net will appear!” but that’s hard for me–especially as I get older. I turn 44 next month and find it harder to take risks. I sometimes joke that I’m all about artisanal pickles–I’m happy to bottle them by hand and sell at the local farmers market. Scaling up is hard…

Thanks for the interview! We eagerly await the next book in your series and wish you the best as you continue to share your stories.

Reclaiming Black Magic

BlackademicsTVTalk 2015

You can learn more about Zetta Elliott and her writing on her website, twitter, and on Facebook.

Images provided by Zetta Elliott

Interview with Phillippe Diederich and Giveaway

fireToday we welcome Phillippe Diederich as he shares his newest book Playing for the Devil’s Fire which we reviewed here.


Thirteen-year-old Boli and his friends are deep in the middle of a game of marbles. An older boy named Mosca has won the prized Devil’s Fire marble. His pals are jealous and want to win it away from him. This is Izayoc, the place of tears, a small pueblo in a tiny valley west of Mexico City where nothing much happens. It’s a typical hot Sunday morning except that on the way to church someone discovers the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza and everything changes. Not apocalyptic changes, like phalanxes of men riding on horses with stingers for tails, but subtle ones: poor neighbors turning up with brand-new SUVs, pimpled teens with fancy girls hanging off them. Boli’s parents leave for Toluca and don’t arrive at their destination. No one will talk about it. A washed out masked wrestler turns up one day, a man only interested in finding his next meal. Boli hopes to inspire the luchador to set out with him to find his parents.

What would you like us to know about Playing for the Devil’s Fire?

I was attempting to write an entertaining story that also showed the problems rural Mexican’s are experiencing with the violence of the narcos and the corruption of officials. The one thing I didn’t want to do was preach to anyone. My hope is that the book is an engrossing read for young and old alike.

Your first novel Sofrito was for adults. What led you to writing for a younger audience? Were there major differences in your writing experience with a younger main character?

Sofrito was my first novel. The first draft was completed many years ago. That story was born of a nostalgia for Cuba where I have been spending a lot of time back inn the 1990s. Playing for the Devil’s Fire was born out of a similar nostalgia, but this time it was for Mexico, where I grew up. I was not really approaching the book as a young adult book. I was just writing a coming of age story in this violent and difficult scenario. One of the issues with a young main character, especially one that is the ‘voice’ of the novel, is that you have to temper your literary impulses. By this I mean that a 12 or 13 year old boy is not going to speak like a 40 something writer. You have to be absolutely faithful to your character and let him narrate the way he would narrate. In other words. I didn’t  write the book Boli, the main character of my story, did. I prepared for this by writing a number of coming of age stories before attempting the novel.

Your main character, Boli, is a reminder that children are resilient. I appreciated his ability to maintain hope in spite of the many horrors happening in his community and family. How did this character come about for you?

Like I said, I had written a number of short stories where I had sensitive and resilient characters in a world that does not appreciate that personality type. I also drew heavily on my own experiences, growing up in the outskirts of Mexico City with a band of boys running wild and without supervision. We were between ages 8 and 15. There are a lot of dynamics in a group like that. But Boli is his own self. As I developed the story he came alive and led the way. I always try and listen to my characters. Boli told me what to do.

Are there reflections of your own childhood hidden within the pages of the book?

As I mentioned above, some of the main character and the dynamics of the young people in the novel are rooted in part in my experiences growing up in Mexico. Just like the scene in the ravine and they find the wreck of an old car, I experienced that with my friends while exploring the ravines around our neighborhood. The fair, the poor neighborhoods, the dynamics of the Devil’s Fire marble, it all comes from something I experienced in my youth.

Are you still a lucha libre fan? Do you have an all-time favorite wrestler?

I am not longer a huge fan. But I like lucha. I don’t follow it. I like the small affairs in Mexico or even here in the states, when the luchadores are not big names and the ring is set up in a street fair or a small auditorium. It’s more intimate. I grew up with the lucha movies. And the scene where Lucio tells Boli that he met Mil Mascaras happened to me when I was on a tour of Churubusco studios with my father. It was pretty cool.

Did your life as a photographer help to prepare you as a writer?

I think it did. First of all I am told I write visually. And no doubt that comes from my experience as a photographer. Also, being a photojournalist allowed me to travel extensively and to meet people I would have otherwise not met. I was a very shy kid and even as a young photographer, I was petrified of approaching people I didn’t know, but I also believed in facing my fears. My work as a photojournalist allowed me to break that. It gave me license to walk up to people on a street corner and start talking to them, ask questions, learn what their situation was.

Which writers have inspired you?

I think John Steinbeck is my biggest inspiration. I find his work very humanistic. His empathy toward his characters is amazing. I think he inspires my stories and my characters. I also admire the work of Earnest Hemingway because of his style and he was probably the writer whose work brought me into reading a lot. I think that without For Whom The Bell Tolls, I would not be a writer because that book started me back on reading obsessively. There are a lot of other writers like Cormac McCarthy and Junot Diaz. I am very eclectic. I like good stories and writing that allows me to forget that I am reading a book.

Have you read any young adult books lately that you would recommend?

I read Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quinetro at the recommendation of my editor at Cinco Puntos Press. I think it’s a great book. Drown by Junot Diaz is not a young adult book, but it has a young protagonist in most of the stories and I think it is the kind of book young Latinos would enjoy. Anything by Sherman Alexie and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I read those with my son and we were both very entertained.


Phillippe Diederich was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Mexico City and Miami. His parents were forced out of Haiti by the dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier in 1963. As a photojournalist, Diederich has traveled extensively through Mexico and witnessed the terrible tragedies of the Drug Wars.

To learn more, visit other stops on the blog tour:

Sept 1: The Pirate Tree review & interview

Sept 4: Guest Post for Clear Eyes, Full Shelves

Sept 5: Review, The Brain Lair

Sept 6: Rich in Color author interview (

September 7: Edi Campbell CrazyquiltEdi review (

September 8: Anastasia Suen, #KidLitBookoftheday (

September 9: Reading Through Life author highlight plus links to blog tour  (

Sept 9: Guest Post, The Brain Lair (

Sept. 12: Linda Washington (

Sept. 13: Excerpt, review and guest post at Mom Read It (

If you are interested in reading the book, you have an opportunity to win a copy. Only those with a U.S. mailing address are eligible for this drawing.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Interview with Lita Hooper

Everyone, please welcome Lita Hooper to Rich in Color! Lita’s novel, Running Away to Home, is out today. Running Away to Home focuses on a pair of twin sisters and their father in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

rath-coverHow do you find your way home when your home no longer exists? For 17-year old twin sisters Sammie and Ronnie and their father, Willis, the answer to that question becomes a life raft when they are displaced after Hurricane Katrina.


Running Away to Home, a YA verse novel, tells the story of two brave sisters, a repentant father, and the amazing triumphant spirit of familial love.


After leaving New Orleans for Atlanta, Ronnie and Sammie are separated and find themselves living in different parts of the city. Each sister is lured by false promises of love and security as they initially believe the people they encounter.


As a YA verse novel, this story relies on poetry to express the intimacy of sisterhood and the triumphant spirit of its characters. Older YA readers will be moved by this family’s journey in the wake of one of the most memorable historical events our nation has experienced.


Today, Lita has stopped by to talk about Running Away to Home and to give away five copies to our readers! The giveaway is open to those with U.S. mailing addresses. Don’t forget to enter the drawing at the end of the interview!

What drew you to write about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Why did you decide to write about it in verse?

I remember being so overwhelmed with emotion when it happened. The thought of being separated from family members is really devastating to me, so as I watched the media coverage on television, that’s all I could think about. How could people find one another? This is has happened to the black family throughout history. During Reconstruction, newly freed black men and women sought family members throughout the South. During the Great Migration, families were torn apart by a need to find employment in the North. I wanted to give voice to this experience and because I am primarily a poet, verse seemed natural. I like persona poems, so this project fit nicely with what I was already doing.

Tell us more about Sammy, Ronnie, and their relationship with each other and their father.

Well, the girls are really interesting to me because I’ve always been fascinated by twins. I thought about how a teenager would feel during this really emotional time and how he or she would deal with the trauma of losing a home and being displaced. That’s when I decided to give to very different perspectives…to work with twin protagonists. I think the girls are very strong but they don’t know how strong they are until the storm changes their lives. I think they’re both very vulnerable but in different ways. Sammie is very simplistic in the way she approaches her survival. She has something to prove to her sister and father, so she takes advantage of being displaced to become the “strong” twin. Ronnie needs to be cared for, something she has longed for since her mother died. She loves her family but doesn’t know how to put herself first. The girls love their father, but when the storm hits, the family was really dysfunctional. The storm changes everything. Literally.

The search for home and family is an essential part of RATH. Why were you excited about these themes?

“Home” has a broad meaning, and I was interested in delving into the layers….I wanted to play around with the idea of running away from one thing in order to find oneself back home. Teenagers always run away from home in YA books. I was interested in creating characters who wanted to return. Being home was so much more than just being in their home town. It was reconnecting with family and fully understanding how fortunate they were. It was about trusting the voice inside, even when others doubted them, and being guided back to where they belonged. I find the idea of family and geographic location interesting because I have always wanted to move and live in a variety of places. Even as a child, I wanted to relocate every few years, but my friends always thought that was odd. In a way, this book is a personal exploration of why traveling and relocating are important to me.

What are you proudest of in RATH? What did you learn while writing it?

I’m proud that I finished my first YA verse novel! The genre is really exciting to me. I never saw myself entering this space, but after reading Make Lemonade by Virginia Wolff, I was hooked. I have been a poet for many years, but I found that book when putting together a list of books for my son’s homeschool reading assignments. Boy, that was a game changer. So RATH is always going to be special to me because it represents my first attempt at YA and at the verse novel.

Are there any other novels in verse that you would recommend to a YA audience? Do you have any recommendations for teens who are looking to learn more about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath?

I like the entire series by Wolff (Make Lemonade, True Believer and This Full House). I also really love the character-driven Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (a classic verse novel), and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s beautiful simplicity in The Red Pencil. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is just amazing and so important given the times we are in, and Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall is filled with gorgeous verse. I would recommend teens watch Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts. It’s a documentary about Katrina. The footage and interviews are amazing though heartbreaking.

What books by or about people of color or people from First/Native Nations are you looking forward to this year? Or that have already come out this year?

I’m planning to read Erin Schneider’s Summer of Sloane, Aditi Khorana’s Mirror in the Sky, and Mia Garcia’s Even if the Sky Falls. So many great books!

Thank you, Lita! If you like what you’ve heard about Running Away to Home, you can now enter to win a copy of the book. Only those with U.S. mailing addresses are eligible for this drawing.

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Lita Hooper is a poet and YA author whose young characters are challenged but triumphant in the wake of historic events. Her work has been published in various journals, magazines, and online publications. She is the author of Thunder in Her Voice: The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Willow Books). When she’s not writing, taking pictures, or traveling, she teaches writing and designs online courses.


Interview: LJ Alonge

Justin BlacktopEveryone, please welcome author LJ Alonge to Rich in Color!

LJ is the author of the Blacktop series, which centers on the lives of different teens and the troubles they face both on and off the basketball court. The first two books in the series are about Justin and Janae, and we’re excited to learn more about them.

If you’re looking for even more sports-themed YA books to add to your collection, consider sticking this series at the top of your to-read list!

What were you most excited about when writing the first two books in the Blacktop series?

I’m really, really excited to challenge the way we think about athletes. Our sports heroes are often made one-dimensional; if you’re a basketball player, fans typically don’t want you to be anything else. And because so many popular athletes are people of color, there’s an unspoken message about what it means to be black or brown: we’re only allowed to be one thing. If we love basketball, we’re not allowed to love philosophy because…that’s weird? The whole one-dimensional thing doesn’t make much sense. A few years ago, I remember people being shocked (shocked!) that LeBron James read books during the playoffs. But of course he reads books! He’s not a basketball-playing cyborg; he’s a person with a variety of interests.

So writing the first two books was so much fun because I got to write about kids we don’t normally think of as basketball players: gamers, extreme introverts, activists, suppliers of fake-magic, former child TV stars. I wanted to watch them bring all of their experiences and talents and weirdness to the court and write about what happened.

I saw on your Amazon profile that you’ve played—and learned a lot from—basketball. What did you pull from your own basketball experience for the Blacktop series?

A lot of times, games aren’t really about the final score. They’re about friendship or love or courage or forgiveness or even pettiness. Sometimes, you can have a whole conversation in a game and not say a word. When I was a kid, I’d play basketball with my dad on the weekends, and the games were never about winning or losing. If I was mad at him, I would take cheap shots at his ribs. If he was mad at me, he’d post me up really aggressively. But if we liked each other, we just fooled around. The game was just a conduit for our emotions.

Tell us more about Justin and Janae! What do you find most compelling about each of them?

It’s kind of funny that Justin and Janae end up on the same team because they are so, so different. It wouldn’t surprise me if they actually hated each other in some alternate universe. In Book 1, Justin’s just had a life-altering growth spurt. Normally, he’s a gamer and bookworm, happy to daydream at home, but now that he’s tall he wants a new identity. Except he has no idea what that identity should be. A basketball player? A “cool kid”? Savior of the neighborhood? I often found myself rooting for Justin, because he’s such a sweet kid, but then I’d get annoyed at how hard he was trying to be things he wasn’t. He’s kind of lost his sense of self, and he spends Book 1 trying to find it.

Janae BlacktopJanae couldn’t be more different. She knows exactly who she is (a bad-ass basketball player) and what she wants (to play college basketball). She’s dedicated her whole life to hoop and has gotten really good and beating boys who underestimate her. But one day her dreams are crushed, and she has to figure out what to do with her life. What will she do without basketball? I know so many people like Janae, who have their dreams dashed and then have to work to find a new dream. Sometimes I hated watching her go through all of her challenges, but I also liked watching her figure things out and become a better person.

I saw in your Penguin Teen interview that you are working on the next book in the series. Can you tell us a little more about Frank and the challenges he will face?

Frank’s always in some kind of trouble. Until recently, it’s been small stuff – tagging, cutting class, stealing. He’s often angry and he doesn’t know why. But he’s just gotten into some big trouble and, because the judge was lenient, Frank’s decided to clean up his act. Except everyday seems to present a new opportunity to slip back into his old, troublemaking self and he doesn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, he falls in love unexpectedly. Because he considers himself a lady’s man, he doesn’t know how to deal with all the emotions that come with love. It’s all new territory for Frank – being a good guy, being in love – and Book 3 is the story of him trying to navigate it.

What are some of your favorite sports-themed books and movies that you would recommend to teenagers?

Hoop Dreams – Maybe one of the best movies of all time, sports or not. It’s an eye-opening documentary about the struggle of two teenagers from Chicago who dream of becoming college basketball players. It was the first movie that showed me how hard it really is to “make it.”

When We Were Kings – I cry every time I watch this documentary. It’s the story of Muhammed Ali and George Foreman’s famous Rumble in the Jungle in 1978. I was 12 or 13 when I watched it, and besides learning about the fight, I learned elements of black history I never knew, like Ali’s activism, and James Brown’s music and even some of the political history of the Congo.

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson – As a kid, Iverson was one of my favorite basketball players, but this documentary focuses on a fight he had in high school, before he became a global celebrity. It insightfully discusses race, class and the criminal justice system.

Do you think you will stick with sports-themed books or are you interested in experimenting with other genres?

Running out of space, but yes I plan to write other genres! I’m working on some short stories/novel about…I don’t really know what they’re about yet. Mostly immigration, family, love and loss. There’s probably gonna be fantasy in there, somehow. Basic story stuff, I guess.

What books by or about people of color or people from First/Native Nations are you looking forward to this year? Or that have already came out this year?

Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Your Is Not Yours and Mariko Tamaki’s Saving Montgomery Sole look amazing. I’m trying to get into fantasy, magical realism and the paranormal, so I’m pretty juiced about these. And Meg Medina’s Burn Baby Burn is set in NYC in the summer of 1977, and the idea of disco balls and bell bottoms on fire has me all kinds of excited.

FullSizeRenderLJ Alonge has played pick-up basketball in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, Kenya, South Africa and Australia. Basketball’s always helped him learn about his community, settle conflicts, and make friends from all walks of life. He’s never intimidated by the guy wearing a headband and arm sleeve; those guys usually aren’t very good. As a kid, he dreamed of dunking from the free throw line. Now, his favorite thing to do is make bank shots. Don’t forget to call “bank!” You can connect with him on twitter @lanre_ak.