Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!
Today we’re chatting with Donna Barba Higuera, the author of
LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE
Lupe Wong is going to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues. She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy…like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much…like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.
Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who’s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously she’s not gonna let that slide.
Not since Millicent Min, Girl Genius has a debut novel introduced a character so memorably, with such humor and emotional insight. Even square dancing fans will agree…
Let’s talk to this wonderful author about her incredible book!
This is Donna. Everyone say, “Hi, Donna!”
Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Donna! Tell us about yourself!
I grew up in a small central California oil/agricultural desert town. There was an awesome pioneer cemetery and I think the stories I imagined about the people’s names on the headstones were the first stories I made up. And my little kid mind had some super weird stories to tell.
I live in the Pacific Northwest now. My husband is also a Middle Grade novel writer, Mark Maciejewski, of the infamous I AM FARTACUS series. I have four kids, 3 old dogs, fish, frogs, and I have a crow friend who responds to my “Com-n-eat!” call every morning.
A crow friend sounds AMAZING!
What was the inspiration behind LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE?
I love this question! Well…my daughter Sophia (7th grader at the time) was telling us over dinner one night how they were going to have a square dancing section in P.E. She was not happy. She didn’t want to dance. And she didn’t really get what square dancing had to do with her. She proclaimed she was going to dance with her best friend Gracie. To which, my older daughter laughed and said, “Ummh, you can’t dance with Gracie. And not only can you not dance with Gracie, you have to dance with a boy, and you have to say yes to whoever asks you.”
The entire exchange felt so off to me. You too? You’re asking, “They still square dance?” Uh, yeah! They do! A huge percentage of schools still have square dancing as standard curriculum. At such an unsure time in kids’ lives, they have to dance with someone of the opposite sex and hold hands, often for the first time with someone other than a family member.
That was how it started. But the character, Lupe, is based on my kids, and me. But Lupe handles it in a way we would have if we were spunkier and not intimidated to speak up and say what we really wanted to say.
What were you doing when you found out there was an offer on your book?
Ha! I was painting my fence. My agent, the lovely Allison Remcheck of Stimola Literary Studio, decided to Facetime me to give me the good news.
Yes, I answered and only then noticed I had a lovely streak of cedar-shaded stain down my face.
Allison told me why she was calling, and I quickly forgot my embarrassment at how I looked.
What were three interesting things you discovered while working on LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE?
-Square Dancing is the official dance in 28 states.
-There is an endangered earthworm in the northwest called the Giant Palouse Earthworm, which is typically 8 inches long, but has an Australian cousin earthworm that can grow to over 3 feet (and it can spit.)
-Not so much interesting, but disturbing. The origins of some of the songs we are familiar with had some very racist origins. Hard to write about, but necessary. Here’s a link to the article that took this story and Lupe’s journey in another direction.
(Warning: Racist language and offensive slurs) https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/05/11/310708342/recall-that-ice-cream-truck-song-we-have-unpleasant-news-for-you
If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?
So, I instinctively blurted out, “Land of the Lost”. But this is a movie, you say? Well, I Googled it so I could find a way to keep it as my answer. There was a Little Golden Book of Land of the Lost- The Unexpected Guests.
And “why” you ask? So my characters could eat giant strawberries of course! But now, I think I’m the one who actually wanted the giant strawberries.
But if placed Lupe, Niles, Andy in Land of the Lost, I think they all have such unique interests; it would be super entertaining to watch Niles studying endangered pachyderms or gastropods, Andy would be dissecting velociraptor dung, and Lupe would be organizing an equal rights movement for Pakuni against the Sleestak, but also, I’d love to see them all jostling to get in front of one another and protect each other from the T-Rex, Grumpy.
That would be an incredible crossover. And who wouldn’t want giant strawberries??
Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?
I am drawn to writing for this age group because it is definitely the age I was most awkward. I think as a writer, the most vulnerable moments in our character’s lives are the most endearing and interesting. So much of my most embarrassing moments as a middle schooler find their way into what I write.
Any hints about your next book project?
I love fantasy and sci-fi! LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE was the first contemporary novel I’ve written. I’m working with the same editor, Nick Thomas at Levine Querido, on my next project. THE LAST CUENTISTA, a book about 12-year-old Petra Peña who rushes to evacuate Earth for a new planet when a comet approaches on a collision course with Earth. Her suspended animation fails during the 370-year journey, so when all the other children are mysteriously reprogrammed and the adults purged, Petra becomes the lone bringer of Earth’s now forbidden stories and her grandmother’s Mexican folklore to a changing humanity. It will be released Fall 2021.
Also, illustrator, Juliana Perdomo, and I have just finalized our picture book, EL CUCUY IS SCARED, TOO! in which the Mexican boogeyman, El Cucuy is just as afraid as the boy he terrorizes, about moving to a new city with unfamiliar people and places; the boy realizes if he can reassure and help El Cucuy to be fuerte y valiente, then perhaps he can be strong and brave as well. The editor is Emma Ledbetter and it will be released by Abrams Kids, Spring 2021.
Oooh, those both sound great. Can’t wait!
What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?
The moment I connected with my editor, Nick Thomas. My agent and I were nearing time for submission. I was at a “First Pages” round table at an SCBWI conference (Yay SCBWI!) in Portland, OR. When we’d finished and were leaving, Nick asked if I could chat for a moment about my book. Within a day, Nick had read the book.
Within a week or so, my agent let me know we were going to acquisitions.
Writing can be arduous, until that one moment when it clicks with the right person at the right time. I know this is not the typical path to finding a publisher, so the sequence of events caught me off guard.
It was meant to be. 😀
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading two books.
I am finishing Cherie Dimaline’s, THE MARROW THIEVES. So good!
And I’m about halfway through Darcie Little Badger’s, ELATSOE. Also amazing!
What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?
Keep a notebook and pen on your bedside table. Those “just before you fall asleep” ideas are either brilliant, or really handy for a good laugh later.
This is so totally true!
BONUS QUESTION: What’s one of your favourite ‘Would You Rather’ questions?
LOL! Lupe and Niles’ “would you rathers” always seem to go pretty gross or cringy.
A good “would you rathers” tells you something about someone’s character. For me, “Would you rather take a leisurely swim in the ocean, or stick your hand in a bucket of eyeballs.”
My answer: Easy, I’d gladly plummet both hands in a bucket of eyeballs.
I am TERRIFIED of the ocean. Fun foot-loss fact: sharks can swim in two feet of water.
(I’m an eye doctor, so the eyeballs thing is sort of not a fair comparison. I touch eyes all day long.)
YIKES!!! When you add in the fun foot-loss fact, that’s a hard choice! 😂
Thank you so much for joining us, Donna!
Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE!
It’s on shelves now!
Click here to enter to win a copy of LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE!
Contest closes Friday, October 2nd at 11:59 pm EST
Thanks for reading!