Volume 1, Issue 1 (February 2014)
Editors Alya Hameed, Alixandria Lombardo, and Kelsey Wadman
Date Conducted: July 23, 2013
The editors of The Unjournal had the opportunity to interview author Pam Muñoz Ryan last summer. Because of her ties to San Diego State University (as an alumna whose son now attends) and her notable presence as a local accomplished children’s literature author, the editors considered an interview with Muñoz Ryan as a chance to feature “one of our own” as well as focus on the position of children’s literature in San Diego. This interview was conducted via email.
Pam Muñoz Ryan is the author recipient of the National Education Association’s Human and Civil Rights Award and the Virginia Hamilton Award for Multicultural Literature. She has written over thirty books for young people that include picture books for the very young, such as Mud Is Cake and Mice and Beans; picture books for older readers which include Amelia And Eleanor Go For A Ride, When Marian Sang and Nacho And Lolita; and the middle grade and young adult novels Riding Freedom, Esperanza Rising, Becoming Naomi León, Paint The Wind and The Dreamer. Her books have garnered many awards and include the Pura Belpre Medal, the Jane Addams Peace Award, the Americas Award Honor, the ALA Schneider Family Award, the Tomás Rivera Award, the Siebert Honor and the Orbis Pictus Award. Born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley of California, she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at San Diego State University and now lives in north San Diego County with her family.
The Unjournal is of course aimed at the critical study of children’s literature. How do you handle the various ways your books are approached and analyzed by academics/scholars of literature and cultural studies? Do you keep up with the critical articles your books generate or are included in?
I would like to say that I’m totally abreast of all of the ways my books are used. The truth is that I don’t always know when or if my books are analyzed, whether or not they’re part of a course syllabus, or whether or not my story is used as a bad example or held up as exemplary text. Maybe that’s better for my psyche to be somewhat in the dark. Often, I find out only after a student or professor writes to me. Since I come from academia, I understand the assignments. I sometimes have a hard time with the scrutiny about what I might have meant, or a discussion of particular symbolism that may not have been intended. That said, I write to some degree on an unconscious level, so symbolic epiphanies sometimes come to me, after the fact, as well. I think the hardest thing to accept is when someone else has decided I did something with intention, when I might not have. Or when an academic criticizes my work for being cavalier when the decision to include or exclude something might have been tedious and tirelessly discussed with my editor.
How easy or difficult is it to avoid critical perspectives (from academics and literary reviews )? Or, do they lend some influence upon your subsequent work?
Someone once told me that I should read all literary reviews, good or bad, over the trash can and then throw them away. That’s easier said than done. I’m not sure why, but I can remember bad reviews verbatim, but I can’t do the same for the great ones. It’s amazing that the negative holds so much power! No matter the analysis, I give myself permission to take it personally for a day or so. How can a person not take it personally? And then… back to work. It’s hard enough to move a story forward without putting pedestals or quicksand in my path. I have accepted that I cannot please everyone. And I remain my own worst critic.
Do you write strictly for kids or you do have in the back of your mind the adults who will inevitably be a part of your audience too? Does that somehow inform your work?
I think I often write for the reader I was in fifth through ninth grade when books made the most profound difference in my life. I’ve been asked before, “What’s your intention when you sit down to write? Do you have a motivation?” I have many motivations, but my biggest goal is for the reader to want to turn the page.
I am often drawn to little known stories about women who conquered societal obstacles, including my grandmother, whose story is fictionalized in Esperanza Rising.
We’re big fans of Esperanza Rising as well as Becoming Naomi Leon, especially for the way you handle subjects many people would say are taboo for children (alcohol, racism, etc) in these works. What have been your challenges in publishing these taboo topics?
I’ve been very fortunate. My editor, Tracy Mack, and my publisher, Scholastic, have never questioned any of these types of subjects in my story lines. Not once in twenty years.
You have actually filled a variety of roles with and for children – as a children’s literature author, a mother and an early childhood educator in the past. Do you find these various roles very different from one another when it comes to addressing those taboo topics mentioned above?
I’m not sure the roles are all that different. My undergraduate degree from SDSU was in Child Development so I come from a developmental school of thought, which has served my writing, and my parenting. No matter what I have done professionally since my early career in education, my background has shadowed me. I was taught to consider the whole child which, as my career changed to writing, translated to considering the whole character. I attempt to write about and embrace all of the things that make a character who they are: their strengths, their weaknesses, their idiosyncrasies, their talents, the face they show the world, and the face they show their soul.
You spoke of your editor and publisher with appreciation a moment ago. You also mention on your website that you’ve had the same literary agent from the start—Kendra Marcus. What about this relationship has been beneficial for you and/or your work? Can having a good literary agent contribute to maintaining the quality of published works?
The relationship of an agent and an author is a financial and business marriage so you must like and respect each other and, given the diverse nature of personalities, it needs to be a good fit. I have been with Kendra at Bookstop Literary Agency for almost twenty years. I still retain her because she takes care of matters that are often tedious for me. She negotiates contracts, handles sub-rights issues, and is a tireless at dissecting statements from publishers. All of the work she does on my behalf, frees me to concentrate on writing.
In my case, once a manuscript or idea is sold, the publishing, and the quality of the work, then falls into the laps of the editor, the in-house art director, and me.
As an author who has been publishing successfully for a while now, how do you feel about the changing publishing industry?
Change is inevitable and often messy. I’m seasoned enough in the publishing industry to know that I am powerless to complain and that complacency is my biggest enemy. I try to stay educated. I try to maintain the relationships that I have groomed over the years. But tomorrow, I could lose an important arm of the team with whom I’ve worked for a long time. That has happened to me over the years in various houses. The only thing to do is stay focused on my own work and the books I hope to write, to try and deliver “as good as, or better” every time, and hope it is good enough.
Finally, is there anything you want to add? Anything you would like scholars of Children’s Literature to know?
I want them to know how grateful I am for their continued support. I feel so fortunate to be in this profession with them. We all want the same thing— to put books into children’s hands. I love your title: A journal for those who take whimsy seriously . One of the reasons I love this profession of writing for children is because most of the people with whom I come into contact (librarians, professors, teachers, booksellers) take their work seriously. They are seriously motivated! But they don’t usually take themselves too seriously. Meaning, that I find us to be a very grounded, yet passionate group, with our fingers on the pulse (or the page) of something that matters and changes lives.