Interview: Mitali Perkins Talks of Between Us and Abuela
The business of children’s book publishing changes with the times, but many elements stay exactly the same. If you are so lucky as to stick around for a couple decades, you may be able to watch your favorite authors grow and change, become superstars, and then test their boundaries and try something new. Take Mitali Perkins. Gosh, how long have I known Mitali? I must have met her not long after 2007. That was the year that Rickshaw Girl came out. Fast forward to today and that same book is currently being filmed and is slated for release in 2020. Mitali has filled the intervening 12 years with YA award winners and now, for the first time, a picture book.
For 25 years, Mexicans and Americans have celebrated “La Posada Sin Fronteras” (Inn without Borders) in Friendship Park. This is a Christmas tradition, which means that Mitali’s newest book, BETWEEN US AND ABUELA, is a different kind of Christmas story. No cover reveal today, folks. This is a straight up interview with Mitali about a lesser known event we should all be aware of.
Betsy Bird: Such a pleasure to talk to you and I’m absolutely fascinated by your new book. In fact, if I don’t miss the mark, this is your first picture book to date. You’ve been making YA and middle grade novels for a while, why the sudden switch in form?
Mitali Perkins: Good question. Wish I had a good answer. The best that I can come up with is that this story seemed to lend itself to the illustrated picture book format. Perhaps I also wanted to create a story about the Southern border that would be shared by children with the adults in their lives. When it comes to our relationship with Mexico, it struck me that children would have an honest response akin to the child in the old “Emperor’s New Clothes” fable (“Why is that man naked, Mama?”)
BB: A lot of picture books about the border concentrate on crossing it or having family members sent back across the border. This is the first book for kids that I’ve seen that discusses the celebration of Las Posadas, which takes place at the border of Mexico and San Diego. How did you hear about this event and what about it struck you?
MP: I’d heard about the La Posada Sin Fronteras event through friends who have been involved for years. When I was a child and a newcomer to California, the border between San Diego and Tijuana didn’t look like it does today. In 1971, First Lady Pat Nixon established Friendship Park. One of her security officers cut the barbed wire, and she crossed the border to hug Mexican children, saying, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.” Unfortunately, our relationship with Mexico has gone in the other direction, fences, walls, and barriers have proliferated, and Friendship Park is now rarely opened. One of the times when people can meet there is during Las Posadas, where visitors on both sides celebrate an ancient Mexican tradition of commemorating Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to give birth to Jesus. This celebration, called La Posada Sin Fronteras (The Inn Without Borders) has taken place for more than a quarter century in Friendship Park (or nearby, when the park has been closed.) In the face of the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, the event seemed like a beacon of hope when I heard about it.
BB: And what kind of research did you do for the book?
MP: I read about the Park and studied the history of the fences between California and Mexico, watched many films and videos, interviewed the organizers, and my editor Grace Kendall and I visited to participate in the service in 2018. The borders are in constant flux so the book is an amalgamation of La Posada Sin Fronteras during recent years.
BB: Obviously I’m not going to be the first one to make this connection, but were you thinking at all of the Christmas Truce of 1914 when you wrote the book? In both cases you have a border and a day in the year when borders go down (albeit briefly). What would you say these books say when they highlight these brief moments of respite?
MP: Ooooh, I like that connection, Betsy. I’ve always been so moved by the story of those soldiers singing across a border of enmity. Hopefully, BETWEEN US AND ABUELA offers the same kind of Christmas hope: that no human-made barrier can stop love.
BB: An author has almost no control over the illustrator they’re assigned. Did you know of the work of Sara Palacios before this book was made?
MP: Nope. But now I’m a huge fan. I love the movement and warmth and hope and joy in her art.
BB: Have you gotten bitten by the picture book bug? Are we going to see more of these in your future?
MP: One more is coming in 2021, and while it is fiction, it will be closer to memoir than any book I’ve written to date.
Many thanks to Mitali and the nice folks at Macmillan, particularly Brittany Pearlman, for the connection.
Special Note: The plot of this book involves a scarf that has been knit for the children’s grandmother. And yes. The knitting needles are held correctly. Woohoo!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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