Interview with Isabel Quintero

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Isabel Quintero is an award-winning writer and the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She lives and writes in the Inland Empire of Southern California. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos Press), her first YA novel, was the recipient of multiple awards including the California Book Award Gold Medal and the Morris Award for Debut YA Novel. She is the author of the chapter books Ugly Cat and Pablo (Scholastic, Inc.) and Ugly Cat and Pablo and the Missing Brother (Scholastic, Inc.). In 2016 Isabel was commissioned by The J. Paul Getty Museum to write a non-fiction YA graphic biography, Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide (Getty Publications), which went on to be awarded the Boston Globe Horn Book Award. Most recently, My Papi Has a Motorcycle (Kokila), her latest book, earned the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Award and a Pura Belpré Honor for Illustration, along with multiple starred reviews. Her work can be found in several anthologies, and several print and online publications. 

Christopher Lee: You’ve published numerous books but you weren’t always an author. Did you always want to be an author? What was that journey like for you?

Isabel Quintero: While I wasn’t always a published author, I’ve always been a writer. Writing was something that I didn’t know I could do for a living. I figured I’d be an educator and work on poetry on the side. It wasn’t until I took an intro to poetry class at Cal State San Bernardino that I realized that there were many paths to being a writer, or I guess I should say, that was the first time I learned about concrete steps to being a published writer and what other things I could do with writing. This was the first time I heard about MFAs, writing workshops, residencies, AWP, and PhDs with creative dissertations. I did not take the MFA or PhD route, though. I earned my MA in English Composition and kept writing and working as an elementary school library tech. I figured I’d teach community college and work on my writing on the side still. And I did do that for a while until I was able to live (mostly) off of writing and school visits.

CL: What authors influenced you as a child/teen? Did you see yourself reflected in books?

IQ: Like many folks I didn’t see myself in the books that were assigned. Michele Serros Chicana Falsa and Other Stories of Death, Identity, and Oxnard changed my life in college. It was the first book where I saw myself in and saw that my culture and experiences were worth writing about. As a child and teen I read Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Stephen King, and John Steinbeck, among others. e.e. cummings was who got me into poetry and taught me about the possibility of language. Steinbeck taught me about imagery and setting and story. Even those dead White guys got me interested in writing, it was Serros who taught me what writing could be.

CL: You include Latinx culture in your work. What do you hope readers get out of experiencing that culture and heritage in your writing?

IQ: This is a strange question. Why wouldn’t I include it? When I am asked questions like this, I often wonder why writing from my experience is seen as something out of the ordinary. White writers are not asked what they hope readers to get out of experiencing that culture and heritage—it’s accepted as default. Writers often write what they know, and that is the case for me. I write the stories I want to write and I hope that readers enjoy them.

[Pine Reads Review greatly appreciates this response and the discussion it opens about diversity in the publishing industry and beyond. We aim to support every voice, story, and reader, and are grateful for opportunities to continue to listen and grow toward this goal.]

CL: In Ugly Cat & Pablo, we see some unlikely friends. Pablo the mouse is friends with a big ugly cat. They’re also friends with the dog Big Mike. Was it important to see these unlikely friendships?

IQ: This particular series is special to me because it came from a time when I was working as an elementary school library tech in a school that served mostly Black and Brown kids, yet the books on the shelves didn’t reflect that. I decided I’d write a book about a Chicano cat and mouse who were friends. Those stories are about friendship and what it means to be a good friend. They’re about community and living in a neighborhood much like the ones that many kids in the U.S. live in. It’s about celebrating those barrios, those neighborhoods that are made up of a lot of different kind of people who get along and help each other. In this case, they are not people but animals. I think it’s important to remember that communities are made up of all kinds of different people, and that it’s okay—that’s what makes them vibrant. I hope these books do that for kids.

CL: Ugly cat is a fun and sweet character. But he is also very ugly. What was the inspiration behind ugly cat?

IQ: Honestly, I wanted to write a funny book. I was reading a lot of “funny” books for kids in the library, but pretty much all of them centered Whiteness. I wanted to write a book that reflected the realities that many of the kids we served lived. I don’t remember how I cam up with idea of Ugly Cat, I just know that I wanted him to be dramatic and over the top. I wanted him to be funny and likable. I hope I did that.

CL: Your work spans from picture book to graphic novel to middle grade (and you spoke about a YA WIP), what do you like about writing for each of these age levels? Do you favor one?

IQ: I just like finding different ways to tell stories, and jumping genres is me trying to find the best way to give life to those stories. I don’t really favor one in particular. They all have their challenges and advantages. What I enjoy about all of them is getting to write for children and young people, especially for marginalized youth who find a connection with my work. That is satisfying and pushes me to keep going.

CL: Do you have any exciting projects coming out that you can tell us about?

IQ: None that I can talk about.

CL: What advice do you have do you have for aspiring writers?

IQ: Read a lot, and write a lot. Read poetry. Read outside your genre. Get involved in a creative writing group that is there to work and be supportive, not a competitive one. Being involved with a creative writing group is a major reasons Gabi, a Girl in Pieces  was published. It was their support and the critiques we did on each other’s work that really helped me grow and have confidence. I think my last piece of advice would be: don’t compare yourself with the success or writing technique/practice of others. You are you and that is it. You want to stay you and hone your own voice—the world needs it.

Don’t miss our review of Ugly Cat & Pablo here!

PRR Writer Christopher Lee

Pick up your own copy of Isabel Quintero’s books today!

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