Despite an always full schedule, Aldama kindly agreed to spend a little time with LARB to discuss his newest children’s book (illustrated by Nicky Rodriguez), Con Papá / With Papá, which is a heartfelt, playful, and culturally rich celebration of fatherhood through a Latinx lens.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: Con Papá / With Papá begins with a mythology of birth that is very Mexican: rather than the stork delivering the baby, the serpent god Quetzalcóatl plays that role. This was new to me. Did you invent this new take on where babies come from, or is this something you heard as a child?
FREDERICK LUIS ALDAMA: My Guatemalan abuelita drove a Hulk-green Chevy Nova and had more stories under her kerchiefed head wrap than Marvel. When I was a chavalito, she filled my head with modern-day retellings of the adventures of the one-legged lightning god Huracan — and the plumed serpent creator god Gucumatz. I didn’t know it at the time (and yes, I blame our Euro–navel-gazing K–12 system), but the plumed serpent god had spread its wings far and wide across Mesoamerican mythologies and religious traditions, known as Kukulkan for the Yucatec Mayans and Quetzalcóatl for the Aztecs. And no wonder. Quetzalcóatl’s got some badass superpowers: creator of arts, sciences — and humanity.
Taking my cue from my abuelita’s spinning of yesteryear’s superheroic yarns, I decided, in the writing of Con Papá / With Papá, that the benevolent Quetzalcóatl would be first-page, front-and-center to our little protagonist’s origin. After all, isn’t it time we give the heave-ho to that all-pervasive image of a pristine-white, big-beak stork dropping a pink-cheeked, wispy-blond baby at doorsteps to be greeted by Leave It to Beaver milk-white mom/dad dyads?
My hope: To give our little ones and their co-readers (guardians, siblings, extended familia, librarians) a different, more capacious origin story, with a kind and joyous serpent god delivering a beautiful brown baby to doorsteps of all sorts of guardians, single papás included; to create an origin story anchored in our deep Mesoamerican mythologies that’s inclusive of all of the ways that we miraculously arrive in the world (in vitro, surrogacy, and adoption, for instance) and are cared for and grown.
It’s a picture book that I hope will capture the imaginations of our little ones. It’s also an opportunity for all of us who’ve been purposefully sidelined and ignored to see ourselves and to celebrate our living, breathing, ever-changing, and reverberant mythologies.
So, yeah, no storks included here, Daniel.
There is such love and joy as the child narrates what they do with Papá, from first steps to running, from learning languages and songs to dancing and bicycle riding — all as a grand adventure of discovery. How did you decide what to include in this wonderful recitation of things to do with Papá?
Oh, my goodness, yes, there is an abundance of milestone moments one can choose from in recreating a child’s discovery of the world — and themselves as active doers in and shapers of this world.
For me, it was a matter of focusing in on those miraculous-seeming, joy-filled moments when children experience their bodies, senses, and minds in new ways; those incredible moments when a child not only learns to walk but also to experience gravity differently by dancing or swimming; that moment when they use languages not only to communicate needs but also to give outward expression and shape to their imaginations: “With Papá, I whisper into shape other worlds in other tongues.”
But it’s not just about selecting moments. It’s also about how we as authors choose to give shape to these milestones in ways that convey this spectacularly splendorous phase of our early development — all while keeping front and center our main audience: little ones viewing and reading along with their papás, mamás, madrinas, abuelitos, librarians, and so many more.
I decided to write Con Papá / With Papá in Spanish and English, giving me the opportunity to use the poetics — sounds, rhythms, patterns, imagery — of both tongues to shape the child’s odyssey:
Con Papá, mis oídos aprenden a escuchar las flores floreciendo.
Escucho el crecimiento rápido y lento de la vida.
With Papá, my ears learn to hear the flowers blooming.
I hear life grow, swift and slow.
Keep in mind, too, that children are poets. Not just in the sense of being creator-makers, but also in the way they naturally metaphorize across the senses. It’s perfectly normal for a child to talk about tasting the colors of the rainbow or hearing a flower bloom. Just as there are no limits to their imagination, there are no borders between senses and sensations. For my little protagonist, their “lips paint skies the color green and mountains the color blue,” and when the “sky cracks open and cries,” their “skin tickles” and mouth opens to “taste the sky.”
Children are our greatest poets — in all senses of the word. Unfortunately, as children grow into teens and then adults, society’s mind-forg’d manacles tend to discipline and even obliterate this creativity.
Perhaps my little protagonist might offer a model for the growing of new generations who step into the world as autonomous creatures and as poets: “Without Papá, I set off on my own adventures. I unzip the sky and begin.”
Often, door and window metaphors are used to talk about kid’s literature and how it opens spaces into the imagination. The mirror metaphor is also used. How do you see these at play in Con Papá / With Papá?
I think these are excellent, concrete ways to think of how kid’s lit works. The mirror metaphor allows us to understand how important it is for all kids to see themselves represented in these stories. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. In my book Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult Writers on the Art of Storytelling (2018), I discuss in a more scholarly way how gatekeeping practices (mainstream agents, publishers, editors, book reviewers, acquisition librarians) continue to keep at bay stories by and about Latinx identities and experiences. But it doesn’t take my book to showcase this. Walk into any public library and you’ll be lucky to find a token one or two Latinx kid’s books at best. Sure, we know that kids are not absorptive sponges, that they are powerful re-creatives who, even if they don’t see themselves in a Giving Tree or a Goldilocks or a Knuffle Bunny or a Little Red Riding Hood, still use the windows and doors to travel somewhere new. But that doesn’t mean that the publishing industry gets a pass.
And because of much banging on publisher doors and boots-on-the-ground protests (I think readily of the #DignidadLiteraria movement), we are starting to see more kid’s books by and about Latinx identities, experiences, histories, and cultures. Run out and get your libraries to order books by Francisco Alarcón, Margarita Engle, Gloria Anzaldúa, Pat Mora, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lucha Corpi, Jorge Argueta, Monica Brown, Meg Medina, Yuyi Morales, Matt de la Peña, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Duncan Tonatiuh, David Bowles, and, well, you, Daniel.
While you’re at it, get your library to order kid’s books that create windows, doors, and mirrors for queer Latinx readers — books like Juan Vega’s Carlos, The Fairy Boy / Carlos, El Niño Hada (2020), Ernesto Martínez’s When We Love Someone We Sing to Them (2021), and Isabel Millán’s Chabelita’s Heart / El Corazón de Chabelita (2022). The more options for children to see themselves, to be invited to step through doors to resplendently imagined worlds, the more flexible and open to others and new experiences, as well as creative and imaginative, they will be as teens and then adults.
Nicky Rodriguez’s illustrations are vibrant and whimsical. Can you talk a bit about your collaborative process?
I love working — no, co-creating — with artists. It’s also why I chose to publish this book and The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie with Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press. Unlike the big kid’s-book publishers, who typically assign an artist to the project (unless you’re a superstar), smaller presses tend to allow more freedom and flexibility. I was familiar with Nicky’s style. The line work and color palette in her illustration and comics work convey strength of character, stitching us deeply to the ups and downs of her Latina characters. I knew too that she could use her deft drawing skills to bring to visual life my unnamed and ungendered narrator and protagonist in ways that would appeal to children.
The process was straightforward. I shared my vision for the characters, emphasizing the need for the protagonist to be ungendered and for the abuelito to be visibly Afro-Latinx to convey the complexity of Latinx interracial histories and heritages. In an email, I shared reference images of my kid, Corina, as a toddler. Nicky then went to work. As her drawings passed back and forth between me and editors at the press, I revised my prose slightly — just as she did her drawings — to avoid redundancies as the words began to meet the visuals more and more.
Nicky’s extraordinary art reminds us that, just as the words should dance off the page and into the child’s imagination, so too should the visuals invite pre-ABC readers to joyfully swirl and twirl from one image to the next as they make the story.
In the end, I hope the results speak for themselves. Nicky’s careful line work, careful choice of perspective, and Latinx-identifiable color palette breathe life into the characters. Nicky brings a visual rhythm to the story that invites us to pause and linger over the action, then move along to the next moment in the story — always in a calm yet exciting (and never overworked) way. I hope others will experience what I do: to love deeply the unnamed protagonist and their journey of discovery with their papá.
Daniel A. Olivas is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books whose most recent book is How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories (University of Nevada Press, 2022). Twitter: @olivasdan.