Jackie Jou of Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego, California, served on the panel that selected Cisneros’ book for Indies Introduce. “Efrén is a good kid and the events of his life are that of a regular middle schooler: annoying younger siblings, hanging out with friends, worrying about homework. Until his mother gets deported,” said Jou. “Very quickly, Efrén steps into the role that his mother was forcibly vacated from and he becomes his siblings’ surrogate parent, making me cry several times in the first few pages. It’s a well-written account of something very topical and I hope that kids get to read it.”
Cisneros earned a degree in English from the University of California Irvine, his teaching credential from California State University Long Beach, and an MFA in creative writing from National University. He has been a teacher for over 20 years and currently teaches reading and writing in an inner-city intermediate school in Santa Ana, California.
Here, Jou and Cisneros discuss how the author’s experiences as a teacher and parent in the Latinx community inspired him to write his debut book.
Jackie Jou: Efrén’s story is moving and realistic and his feelings of guilt, shame, and fear for his family and his mother’s deportation had a lot of emotional impact for me. What inspired you to tell this story and create these characters?
Ernesto Cisneros: The story kind of unfolded itself in my classroom right after the last presidential election, when three of my students experienced ICE raids at their homes. Each of them lost someone special that year, yet they were expected to attend school as if nothing had happened.
But they weren’t the only ones impacted. There was so much fear, hurt, and uncertainty going around that I knew I needed to do something. That’s how Efrén was born — a friend to help my students navigate through the nightmare they were living.
JJ: How did your experiences as a teacher and parent help you write Efrén Divided?
EC: Honestly, Efrén Divided came about when both my worlds collided. I needed to write the book for my kids, both those at home and at work. I took parts of my personal life and embedded them with the neighborhood I grew up and now teach in. The goal was to show all Latinx children that they are amazing, that they matter, and are worthy of being written about in books. For a change, I wanted them to see themselves in a new, positive light.
JJ: Efrén takes so much upon himself to take care of his family and to hide his problems from his friends and sympathetic teachers at school. How should we be talking to kids about deportation and their personal problems to make them feel like they can come to adults for help and support?
EC: The most important thing we can do as adults is to let them feel safe. In my classroom, I make sure to post “Safe Zone” posters, letting students know that I will not tolerate any form of discrimination whatsoever. I also have a blue box, where students can leave me confidential notes about things going on in their own lives that might be impacting their academic life.
I also never hide the mistakes I make. I want them to see me struggling as I attempt to diagram long, complex sentences, analyze language-rich poetry, or simply try to drink my coffee without spilling it all over myself. It is important that they see how I overcome these obstacles so it might serve as a model for them to later follow.
In addition, I bring in literature that reflects their experiences. I find this leads to many important dialogues we would not otherwise have. Students are eager to share; they just need to feel safe to do so.
JJ: For people who may not be as familiar with kids and families like Efrén’s, what advice would you give them while reading the book and discussing it?
EC: Efrén’s world will certainly not align with that of every American, but I’d like for every reader to focus on the similarities rather than the differences between us. I am sure there is a bit of Efrén in everyone — a part that loves their family and friends and would sacrifice all they have for them.
With that said, it would be incredibly positive to have families discussing their own history — stories of their own parents and grandparents and great-great grandparents and how they came to America, as well as the difficulties they faced.
JJ: What do you hope children and their parents reading Efrén Divided take away from the story?
EC: I would hope that children and their parents alike will leave with a sense of appreciation for everything they have been able to accomplish in this great nation of ours. Along with that, I hope they are sympathetic to the plight and struggles of others who share those same dreams. After all, America’s history is founded on the dreams of immigrants.
Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros (HarperCollins, 9780062881687, Hardcover Middle Grade, $16.99) On Sale Date: 3/31/2020
Find out more about the author at ernestocisneros.com.
ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce debut authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions.