Cover Reveal and Interview: SOFÍA ACOSTA MAKES A SCENE with author Emma Otheguy
It seems to me that if you are good at your job, like, say, writing books for kids, you just need to up your game all the time. Try different things! Get all kinds of ideas out there. See, now take author Emma Otheguy. Here you have someone with a career that isn’t afraid to try new things. Whether she’s penning the latest Carmen Sandiego novel, writing picture book bios IN VERSE of beloved Cuban poet José Martí, penning picture books, or fulling embracing fantasy, she’s game. Now it’s time for something new again. Something with a little ballet, some affordable housing, and some serious talk about immigration and America. Today we talk with Ms. Otheguy about SOFÍA ACOSTA MAKES A SCENE, which is coming out in early 2022, and we have a bit of a cover reveal as well.
A plot description, you say? Don’t mind if I do!
It’s a good thing Sofía Acosta loves dreaming up costumes, because otherwise she’s a ballet disaster—unlike her parents, who danced with prima ballerina Alicia Alonso before immigrating to the suburbs of New York. Luckily, when the Acostas host their dancer friends from Cuba for a special performance with American Ballet Theatre, Sofía learns there’s more than dance holding her family together. Between swapping stories about Cuba and sharing holiday celebrations, the Acostas have never been more of a team.
Then Sofía finds out about the dancers’ secret plans to defect to the United States, and makes a serious mistake—she confides in her best friend, only to discover that Tricia’s ideas about immigration are not what she expected. Sofía wonders what the other neighbors in her tight-knit suburban community really think of immigrant families like hers. Sofía doesn’t want to make a scene, but if she doesn’t speak up, how will she figure out if her family really belongs?
I had a chance to talk to Ms. Otheguy and ask her every question that was on my mind:
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for answering my questions today, Emma. So let’s start at the top. You’ve written a book that touches on immigration, making it personal and understandable for young readers. What began this book in your brain? Where did the idea come from?
Emma Otheguy: Thank you for having me! SOFÍA ACOSTA MAKES A SCENE is so near to my heart because while it is anything but autobiographical (trust me, I really wish I had personal connections to the American Ballet Theatre and the Cuban National Ballet), it draws very closely on the emotions I felt as a kid within my family and my wider community. Like Sofía, I was one of three kids, I got woken up each morning by my dad singing the Cuban national anthem as he marched up the stairs, and my mom stocked snacks for every kid in the town. Just like Sofía’s neighbor calls her house the “Acosta accordion” because it expands and contracts as visitors come and go, we had a friend who called my parents’ house the “Otheguy accordion” because of all our guests.
The joy of writing SOFÍA ACOSTA MAKES A SCENE was revisiting that chaotic house full of good Cuban food and music. The challenge was remembering all of the ways in which I felt as if I didn’t fit anywhere. As the youngest I felt like I had to live up to my siblings, and like many children of immigrants, I felt the burden to make my parents’ struggles and sacrifices worthwhile. When Sofía describes the guilt and obligation that guide her desperate attempts to make her rather sorry ballet dancing a success, she’s describing something I experienced so heavily as a child—not specifically in ballet class, but in the desire to make my family proud and make my gratitude evident.
Then there’s Sofía’s sense of not belonging in her fancy suburban town. I have spoken a lot about the pressure Latinex kids often feel to blend into predominantly white spaces, and when we add a community that prizes financial exclusivity, that pressure can become even greater. Writing about growing up Latina in a particular type of suburb was terrifying and healing—terrifying because that reflex to appear grateful and to make other people comfortable has never quite left me—I am, in fact, deeply grateful for the community in which I was raised, especially a few extraordinarily supportive teachers (the kind who show up at book launches and give you late-night advice twenty years later)—and healing because Sofía, and therefore I as her author, got the chance to speak out about the harmful parts of her community. What’s more, Sofía tries to make it better in ways that I never had the bravery to do.
BB: With the topic of immigration you had a number of ways to tackle the subject. You could have made Sofia someone who was herself immigrating or you could have made it a member of her family. You could have made your main character Tricia and started from a place of skepticism or misinformation. Instead, you’ve made the interesting choice of making your main character both part and not part of the process of immigration. Can you tell us how you came to that decision?
EO: I positioned Sofía very similar to where I was as a 5th grader: she’s the child of immigrants and she witnesses immigration as family and family friends come to the United States, which gives her a unique and very pro-immigrant perspective. The book then becomes about how she learns to be an advocate, even when it upsets people like her best friend Tricia. SOFÍA ACOSTA MAKES A SCENE came from the part of me that was exhausted by how hard I was trying not to make a scene: I spent too long as a kid making my identity palatable, talking about the “fun” parts of Latinidad (frijoles negros, anyone?) because I knew that talking about an issue like immigration could make others feel anxiety, shame, or discomfort, and I couldn’t stomach that. I think a lot of Latinas, a lot of children of immigrants, a lot of people of any background for whom living in a certain zip code was not probable but rather an unexpected privilege feel the same sort of anxiety and need to conform. When I became a writer and learned to tell my story anyway, it was liberating—and now whenever I feel afraid to speak my mind I think of Sofía and remember that sometimes, it’s okay to make a scene.
BB: I’m always very interested in a writer’s process. Did you know where Sofia’s story was going from the moment you started writing or are you the kind of author who just comes to an ending naturally without forethought?
EO: I was absolutely certain about three things when I started this book:
- There would be ballet, drawing on the shared ballet history of Cuba and the United States. For example, did you know that Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso was one of the American Ballet Theatre’s early stars and that George Balanchine choreographed works just for her?
- Sofía would be actively trying to sort out where she belonged in her family and her town
- Sofía would learn to speak up and make a scene.
The themes were fixed, but the actual plot was flexible. Here’s something I wrote about a very early draft: I don’t know where Sofía is going to end up. I don’t know if she’ll end up friends with Tricia or not. But I do know that I want to provide Sofía and me with the comfort that you always belong in your family, even if you don’t know quite who you are.
BB: What were the things you absolutely wanted to be included in this book? What were the things you wanted to avoid at all cost?
EO: I really wanted to make fun of all the quirky things my sister did when we were kids! I’m joking (sort of), but I knew from the beginning that Sofía’s sibling relationships would be a prominent part of this book, reflecting Sofía’s sense of belonging-and-not-belonging at every level: in her family, at her ballet school, and in her town.
I wanted this book to talk about housing: one of the ways in which Sofía makes a scene is by advocating for new affordable apartments in her town despite her neighbors’ objections. Housing impacts racial segregation, economic opportunity, health outcomes, and climate change, and yet many people fear change and feel attacked when housing inequities are pointed out. I hope readers who see how housing affects Sofía’s family and friends will become more interested in this issue.
What I wanted to avoid at all costs was offending people—like I’ve said earlier in the book, I struggle with a fear of rocking the boat but also hold very strong opinions informed by my lived experiences, professional work, and academic reading. I think those opinions are important, and Sofía gave me the bravery to share them.
BB: Would this happen to be part of a series or is this more of a standalone?
EO: In the first few months of 5th grade, Sofía grows so much, becoming aware of class and immigration dynamics that she had previously thought very little about. The more I got to know Sofía as a character, the more I wondered how she would react to different challenges and social dynamics. But I was also very careful to stay true to her voice and where she was in her personal development. I would love to explore where she goes next and who she becomes as she matures and encounters new scenarios, although currently no other books are planned.
BB: And finally, what are you working on next?
EO: Secret projects! I know, that’s a terrible answer, but it’s true. I have some really exciting books in the works, but nothing that’s quite ready to share yet. The best way to find out what’s in the pipeline (as soon as I can unveil) is to sign up at www.emmaotheguy.com/email.
Ye gods, those were some good answers. So good, in fact, that I think I’m ready now to reveal the cover. One and all, please be so good as to enjoy SOFÍA ACOSTA MAKES A SCENE, out January 25, 2022 with Knopf Books for Young Readers:
The book is available to pre-order now. Many thanks to Erin Clarke for setting up this interview and to Emma for answering my questions with such care.
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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