Award-winning author Julia Alvarez will deliver the closing keynote at the American Booksellers Association’s ABC Children’s Institute on Thursday afternoon, June 23, in Orlando, Florida. The author of numerous books for adults and children, Alvarez is currently a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. In 2014, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama.
While Alvarez now shares a passion for literature with the booksellers who will be attending the Children’s Institute, she recently told Bookselling This Week how there was a time when it was incredibly unlikely that she would become a reader, much less a writer.
“I didn’t come from a reading culture and I didn’t come from a reading family. I should not be addressing all these people as a writer, these many years later, because I wasn’t aimed in that direction at all,” said Alvarez, who was born in New York but grew up in the Dominican Republic. “In a dictatorship, books are carefully monitored and censored, so they’re never very interesting. You can’t clip the wings of a story and expect it to fly.”
But Alvarez did come from a storytelling culture that gave her an understanding of the many ways narratives can be shared. “When people get upset about the Internet and how stories are being delivered these days, I remind myself, we don’t have to worry about stories. Stories are going to be just fine, but there might be different delivery systems,” she said.
While Alvarez did not grow up with books, she keeps close to her heart the stories she heard from her aunts, uncles, and godmothers around the dinner table. Immigrating to America at the age of 10 is what ignited her desire to begin reading the printed word and what helped her to eventually find a way to put her own stories onto the page.
“I think stories are all about portable worlds. When you’re uprooted from your concrete, physical world, that’s all you’ve got. When you have to leave overnight, with whatever you can pack in a small suitcase for a family, the only space left to bring all of it with you is the stories in your head. And that doesn’t have to go through customs,” she said.
Taking a page from her own experiences, Alvarez’s 1991 adult debut, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (Algonquin), is the story of the four García sisters, who arrive in America as young girls and are swept up into the culture of the 1960s and beyond. The book was named a Notable Book by the New York Times and the American Library Association and earned the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for books with a multicultural perspective.
Alvarez published several more books, including novels, poetry, and nonfiction, before she began writing books for children.
The Secret Footprints (Knopf Books for Young Readers), a picture book published in 2000, features a little girl growing up in the Dominican Republic, and Alvarez’s middle-grade novel Before We Were Free (Knopf Book for Young Readers) went on to win the 2004 Pura Belpré Narrative Award and was named to the ALA Best Books for Young Adults list and an ALA Notable Children’s Book in 2003.
Noting that the few stories she read as a child were critical to her understanding of the world, Alvarez said she believes it’s imperative for children to have stories of their own. “The stories we get in childhood are going to be the stories of our lives and the world and what we expect,” she explained, adding that children are the most critical readers a writer can get.
Alvarez brought her passion for books back to the Dominican Republic when she and her husband, Bill Eichner, launched the coffee farm collective Café Alta Gracia. After discovering surprisingly low literacy rates in the community, Alvarez created a literacy center project to bring books and reading to the area. But many of the books available were English books translated into Spanish, and they failed to resonate with the Dominican reader.
“They didn’t deal with the realities of the people there. There wasn’t that connection to a world they knew, and I didn’t want them to feel that literature was about being only someone else,” said Alvarez, recalling her entrée into children’s books and her inspiration for The Secret Footprints.
In her newest picture book, Where Do They Go?, Alvarez addresses the question of what happens when a loved one dies through subtle poetry set against illustrations by Sabra Field.
Where Do They Go? will be published in October by Triangle Square Books/Seven Stories Press, along with a simultaneous Spanish-language paperback release. Alvarez will sign advance copies of Where Do They Go? during the Children’s Institute Author Reception on June 22, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. in Salon B/C/D Ballroom.
During a time when Alvarez was managing her own grief, she discovered there was very little that she had the patience to read. “I felt like an old woman, very tired, in a playground, watching little kids tumble and jump, and it just exhausted me,” she said. “I saw these poor characters being ushered forward, and I thought, just give them a break. Don’t make them go through all of that. Life is hard enough.”
So Alvarez turned to children’s books, poetry, and ancient literature, including every translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and found the inspiration for Where Do They Go?
“In grief, you return to really simple questions, to a child’s question, and it comes down to: Where do they go? Where are they?” said Alvarez. “Kids need grieving addressed, as well as adults. The child in us, who is the reader, needs to ask the questions and not have them tidied up, because kids can sense that.”
Though many of Alvarez’s books are for children, she said she really writes for children of all ages, especially that child that remains inside of adults well beyond their youth. She also understands now, as a grandmother, that it’s important to be writing for the parents of children, too.
“So much of what kids read is what their parents like and what their parents remember as being special to them, which, no doubt, was transferred to them by the parents who read to them. Children’s literature is always about the children in the adults, too, and that history,” she said.
Beyond parents sharing stories with their children, people like booksellers and librarians are key figures in shaping lives by providing us with the books that inspire us to follow a particular life path, said Alvarez. “Someone put it in your hands, someone read you that story, somebody said, ‘I think you’re going to like this,’ and you fell in love. You said, ‘I want to be the person that can live inside a story like that.’ And there goes your life,” she explained.
“Children’s literature is just so critical,” Alvarez concluded. “Even people who tell you they don’t read or like books, ask them about a book they really liked when they were a kid. It doesn’t matter who it is, they will have a cherished book.”
The Children’s Institute Closing Keynote will take place on Thursday, June 23, from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. in the Salon E Ballroom of the Wyndham Orlando Resort International. Learn more about Children’s Institute and register for the event here.