Beauty Woke: Puerto Rican Pride and Fairy Tale Twists in an Interview with NoNieqa Ramos
Are you ready to start talking about 2022 books, because for me it is NEVER too early! Particularly when there are fun titles to look forward to.
NoNieqa Ramos first came to wide acclaim and attention when she wrote the YA novel THE DISTURBED GIRL’S DICTIONARY. Next thing you know, it’s a 2018 New York Public Library Best Book for Teens, a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection, and a 2019 In the Margins Award Top Ten pick. Since then she’s turned her attentions to the children’s sphere. Perhaps you’re aware of her debut picture book YOUR MAMA which came out on April 6, 2021. What you may NOT have heard about is BEAUTY WOKE, a book due out on February 15, 2022.
Now I could sit down and do a spiel for you, sure. But why not let the experts take the lead? Here’s Mr. Kwame Alexander himself, giving you the lowdown:
Is that enough? It is not enough. Because what we have here today is an opportunity to hear NoNieqa read her own book aloud. But before we get to that, let’s talk to her a bit!
Betsy Bird: NoNieqa! Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed on my blog. First and foremost, how are you and your family doing in the wake of this pandemic?
NoNieqa Ramos: It’s my pleasure to chat with you, Betsy! Like most households, my family is in emotional recovery mode. My spouse is a superintendent whose priorities to fight for human rights for LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC kids rapidly expanded to include keeping educators and their families alive and safe. Under constantly shifting and conflicting guidance and no sleep, my partner manages to keep fighting the good fight. Queer children already contend with disconnection under
normal cisheteronormative circumstances, and I’m so proud of my tweenager for working through loneliness and holding onto hope as they blossomed in the shade of social isolation. Preserving my seven-year-old’s right to innocence, but teaching him the reality and dangers of racism has taken a toll. Thankfully, our Lango Mango is thriving and looking forward to a birthday with in-person friends and family! I am overjoyed to be able to focus. Writing my latest novel whilst orchestrating virtual school was a test of my sanity, and I needed many retakes. Sometimes Your Mama is Cray Cray…
BB: Oh, virtual school. Never before has the end of the school year looked as good to parents as it does to kids. Now right off the bat I feel inclined to inform people that BEAUTY WOKE is this incredibly complex package wrapped in what looks like simple ideas. What starts out looking like a new baby book (the standard stuff that parents love) turns instead into this very interesting combination of fairy tale motifs, the rise of a current moment, pride, fear, and the overwhelming support of family and friends. Where did this book originate for you?
NR: This book originated in feelings of pain and helplessness at the constant plight of the Puerto Rican people suffering from colonization, corrupt government, and the mismanagement of the island. Notice, I did not cite hurricanes and earthquakes. The United States has more than enough resources to support and enable a stable and autonomous Puerto Rican economy, ensure Puerto Rican infrastructure is sound, and guarantee Puerto Rican people flourish.
I also wrote this book for Boricuas here in the States and all Latinx people. My tias taught me when I was tiny to be defiant because of every racial incident they knew I would encounter. When I wrote BEAUTY WOKE, I had the mental health of our most vulnerable readers in mind. From the minute a BIPOC child perceives the world, they begin to witness racism through the experiences of their parents, and then inevitably, themselves.
When my son was just six months old, I was accosted by a white woman while sitting in my car. I was parked in the parent car line closest to the door where my foster children would exit the building after the end of their extra curricular activities. A white daddy waited in his car behind me. I had two very high maintenance kiddos in the backseat, one of them who was emotionally disturbed.
The white woman in a Army jacket motioned for me to roll down my window. She proceeded to berate me for not parking my car, preach that people like me always take advantage, direct comments to my six-month-old-old son that “his mother was a b*tch” because I asked her to explain what she meant by “people like me.” Think about the lesson my six-month-old learned that day–and the two kids in the back seat. Wondering what she said to the white man waiting for his kids parked behind me? Nothing. How about what the white man said in defense of me and my brown and Black children?
My children witnessed Donald Trump calling Puerto Ricans lazy and tossing paper towels at a crowd of brown families who were drowning in sorrow. Think about how a child’s self-esteem develops knowing their parents, their families, and their cultures are under siege.
Beauty Woke was my attempt to contribute to the canon of literature that acknowledges the scourge of racism, nourishes children with self-esteem, self-worth and pride, and protects and empowers them within their own families and communities. I hope BEAUTY WOKE provides validation, refuge, and healing and buoys resilience, joy, and pride.
BB: Let’s look a little closer at the fairy tale aspects, which I find so interesting. This book has a Sleeping Beauty motif embedded within its contemporary story. The main character is just called Beauty and much of the book is about having your eyes opened figuratively, in all the senses of the term. Was this fairy tale always part of the story? What elements did you want to highlight in particular?
NR: The fairy tale was always part of the story. It was originally called BEAUTY SLEEP, BEAUTY WOKE. What intrigued me about the narrative arc of the original fairy tale was the inevitability of the outcome. Offended at not receiving an invitation to Princess Aurora’s christening, a witch levies a deadly curse at the infant. The King and Queen, the most powerful people in the land, were rendered powerless.
For Aurora, coming-of-age meant succumbing to the curse of the evil witch, pricking her hand on the spinning wheel, and dying. EXCEPT. Except her godmothers, her madrinas, protected her with a counterspell. Though the King and Queen have all the spinning wheels in the land destroyed, Aurora pricks her finger as ordained. In the fairytale, the counterspell is not so much Aurora’s deep sleep, but the fairies’ hope that in the future, love can save her.
In my rendition of BEAUTY WOKE, the parents are warned that Beauty will experience racism and so they have the Espiritista bless every room for protection. But just like the King and Queen of the fairytale, even if Beauty’s parents attempted to insulate and isolate her from all potential harm, they would fail. Experiencing the scourge of racism is inevitable and impossible, even for a small child. In my story, the spinning wheel is the television.
Realizing how much racism and racist-related death exists in the world overwhelms Beauty and sends her into a deep hibernation. Only with the help of her family and her community can she activate the counterspell, open her eyes, and experience the full blossoming of her beauty with the protective circle of her community.
BB: Sometimes the text rhymes. Other times it’s simply rhythmic. There’s a beat to it that stays regular but what it’s doing has a tendency to change depending on the mood or needs of the book. What did you enjoy about writing it this way?
NR: The serenade of four-line stanzas that follow an ABCB rhyme scheme in the ballad… The deep quiet of haikus like the breath of trees… Each traditional form of poetry has power in its structure. I revel in writing what I consider the jazz of poetry, free verse. It can be uneven as a city sidewalk, unpredictable as the city itself. But as you stated, there is a heartbeat that lives in the body of the text. I love creating an emotional arc in my work by navigating between rhyme and rhythmic structure. I think kids themselves are embodiments of jazz, of free verse.
That being said, it may take some readers a second to tune their ears to the music. That’s partially due to colonization, to our ears being trained from preschool up to regard Mother Goose British rhyme as the gold standard. Sometimes when we hear jazz, we may forget the intentionality of every note. When we hear writers of color experiment and play, we sometimes forget the intentionality in their art too.
The other reason we sometimes need to learn to hear the music–poetry is meant to be spoken out loud! I always write with my work being read out loud in mind. That’s why I was so hyped at the opportunity to read some of my work here with you, Betsy.
BB: How did your editor challenge or accept what you initially submitted? Was there a lot of back and forth at all?
NR: After Versify acquired YOUR MAMA, I submitted a pb called KICKS, which was rejected. Soon after I started drafting BEAUTY WOKE. I actually pitched the work in Kwame Alexander’s studio surrounded by his works, his accolades, his art, and his favorite books. He terrified me when he asked me to read BEAUTY WOKE aloud! To lay it out, it was like Coltrane asking me to play piano.
There is a call and response between the bisbauela (great grandmother) in BEAUTY WOKE and the family and community. Kwame was especially affected by this part in the arc and shared with me a favorite childhood book with a similar structure. I gathered all of his reactions and suggestions and went forth and revised, and thankfully, he and my previous editor Erika Turner accepted it.
BB: Let’s talk a little bit about the art of Paola Escobar. Were you familiar with her work before? Was this how you envisioned the book? And what’s your favorite spread?
NR: I first discovered Paola’s work in the critically-acclaimed award-winning book PLANTING STORIES: THE LIFE OF LIBRARIAN AND STORYTELLER PURA BELPRÉ written by Anika Aldamuy Denise. I have to shout out Paola’s illustrations in another work I adore, DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT by Angela Burke Kunkel. When we decided to ask Paola to illustrate BEAUTY WOKE, I had to pinch myself!
My work with Paola exemplifies how important it is to appreciate the diversity within Latinx culture. To communicate the Bronx Nuyorican culture that was my lens for the story, Paola and I exchanged a lot of research. Seeing her translate my vision and layer in her own was magical. My favorite spread of Paola’s work depicts the family and community bestowing blessings on Beauty. Her incorporation of Taíno culture into the visual narrative really elevates Beauty’s journey to self-acceptance and reclamation of joy in her ancestral and cultural roots.
BB: What are you working on next?
NR: Right now, I am working on creating my first picture book biography on three Bronx queens … Mil gracias to picture book queens Monica Brown and Anika Aldamuy Denise for your support and insight on my writing journey!
And now a true treat. Please be so good as to follow this link to the audio recording of NoNieqa reading this book aloud: https://nonieqaramos.com/home/beauty-woke/
Many thanks to NoNieqa Ramos for answering my questions with such flair. Thanks too to the folks at Versify. BEAUTY WOKE is out February 15th in stores everywhere.
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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