Three Questions for Frederick Luis Aldama Regarding His New Children’s Book, “The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie”




FREDERICK LUIS ALDAMA is one of those prolific scholars who doesn’t know the meaning of writer’s block. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and his PhD from Stanford University, and is presently on the faculty of The Ohio State University, where he serves as a Distinguished University Professor of Arts and Humanities, a Distinguished Professor of English, and a University Distinguished Scholar and Alumni Distinguished Teacher. At The Ohio State University, he directs LASER: Latinx Space for Enrichment and Research and co-directs the Humanities and Cognitive Sciences High School Summer Institute, both significant mentorship programs.

Aldama is also an award-winning author and editor of over 40 books. Co-founder and director of SÕL-CON: Brown & Black Comix Expo, Aldama is the general editor of Latinographix, a trade press series that publishes Latinx graphic fiction and nonfiction. In 2018, his scholarly study Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics, published by the University of Arizona Press, won the International Latino Book Award and the Eisner Award for Best Scholarly Work. Aldama adapted this work as a documentary, which is available on Amazon Prime.

His most recent publication is the children’s book The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie, illustrated by Chris Escobar, which was released in June by Mad Creek Books. As with the vast majority of Aldama’s writing, the story centers on and gives agency to the Latinx experience while weaving in elements of a Mexican folklore in the form of the chupacabra, a mythical beast. Aldama and Escobar have created a vibrant, exciting, and thought-provoking book that will bring joy to children of all cultures and experiences.

Aldama took time out from his very busy schedule to discuss this wonderful new addition to children’s literature.

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DANIEL A. OLIVAS: What drew you to the mythology of the chupacabra, and how did you weave that into your book?

FREDERICK LUIS ALDAMA: As a chavalito growing up in rural Northern California, whenever our chickens or goats were attacked or eaten, my abuelita would tell me this was the work of a chupacabra — a hairless, fanged creature that would only come out at night. As it turns out, this is one of those stories many Latinxs hear growing up in the Southwest and Puerto Rico — all, of course, with their own regional and familial variations, including the notion that the creatures are aliens from outer space. As a kid, I was scared and intrigued. The chupacabra filled out my imagination …

A few years ago, I finally had the time to return to the chupacabra of my childhood. I decided he would have an outsize adventurous spirit — he’d be a 10-year-old, book-smart, vegetarian monster without fangs. He’d be named Charlie. He’d be hungry for friendship. I knew his epic adventure would be a collective one and that it would involve the freeing of children from cages.

Long before the mainstream news broke that children were being ripped apart from parents and siblings, those in the Latinx community had known well about the horrors of the detention centers scattered across the US side of the US-Mexico border. With legions of little ones being forcefully separated from family and jammed through makeshift kangaroo courts, the adventure of Chupacabra Charlie and his young, human friend Lupe pushed hard at my skull. I needed to build this storyworld, in a way that would resonate with readers at a deep, mythological level. I needed to create a new mythos — but one that resonated with our everyday reality.

As you yourself know well, world-building is no easy task. World-building for children is arguably even more of a challenge. Stepping into the rhythms, emotions, thoughts, and feelings of my kid self required huge amounts of focused work. And, of course, lots of post-production sculpting of the narrative once Chris’s images had taken shape; the last thing one wants in a kid’s book is word-image redundancy. What we hoped to create is a verbal and visual storyworld that captures, guides, and enlarges the already wondrous imagination of children.

As we read the book, we see that the real monsters are not the chupacabras. Can you talk about the true “monsters” of your story?

Across all media, Latinxs are way underrepresented. Snapshot: We’re over 18 percent of the US population and are grossly underrepresented in media. When we are represented, it’s as the monstrous: invading “aliens,” “bad hombres,” tempestuous, lascivious, in need of civilizing. In effect, we’re life-drained of our complex humanity. That’s when we are represented. Mostly, we are not. Walk through the children’s section of any library, and you’ll be hard pressed to find us represented at all.

If we look beyond the mainstream’s smoke and mirrors, we see clearly the real monsters: those who dehumanize Latinx folk in their stories and in their actions. Those identified as monsters are not monsters at all. Indeed, those who call us monsters end up being the monsters.

The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie shows some chupacabras behaving rascally, like Charlie’s cousin who likes to “taunt and tease other animalitos.” And, of course, there’s Charlie himself, who looks different, at least to the humans. But neither one is monstrous. Charlie is handsome, curious, creative, empathic, and heroic! Indeed, the true monsters are the “Big People in Green” who cage and lock up children — those niños saved by Charlie and Lupe.

Recall that, in Maurice Sendak’s storyworld, Max’s source of trauma wasn’t the “Wild Things.” It sprung from the adult-humans.

Chris Escobar is the artist who illustrated your story. How did you collaborate with Chris in developing the distinctive look of the chupacabras?

Before setting pen to paper to spin words to world-build this story, I knew that Chris would be the talent for illustrating The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie. His original, evocative, richly imagined creatures, in his biographical vignette comic A Monstrous Life (in my 2018 book Tales from la Vida: A Latinx Comics Anthology), sent me tumbling back in time to my childhood and first love of rascally monsters.

I reached out. I pitched the story. Chris jumped with great enthusiasm. And I jumped with joy. I was able to choose the co-creative partner that I knew would best bring Charlie and Lupe’s adventure to life. I say this knowing that, more often than not in the children’s book industry, you can’t choose your co-creator. This is mostly done in-house. Often, scripts are written and drawings made without much, if any, communication between writer and artist.

This was not the case with me and Chris. We were in constant communication throughout the process, even meeting for an extended period in Savannah, Georgia. While the A-to-Z draft of my narrative was done, it went through many revisions alongside Chris’s visual world-building. And, at a certain moment, we also invited others to help in the final, fine sculpting work: Kristen Rowley, editor-in-chief at Ohio State University Press and parent of two boys, as well as Cathy Camper, librarian and award-winning children’s book author.

Co-creating with Chris, together with Kristen’s and Cathy’s fine sculpting suggestions, allowed me to fully step back into that moment when I first dreamed up my chupacabra. Like Charlie and Lupe, who soar to new heights in a pickle-powered ’67 Impala, I hope that our collective creation skyrockets to the heliosphere and beyond, touching all sorts of young readers today and tomorrow.

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Daniel Olivas is a regular contributor to LARB.

 

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