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Diana Gonzales Bertrand: Writing for children isn't kids' work

“A good writing teacher needs to be a writer herself," Diane Gonzales Bertrand says, smiling. And she knows of what she speaks. For more than a decade now, Gonzales Bertrand has taught writing at St. Mary's University and, during the same span of time, authored several books for children and young adults, including fan favorite Sip, slurp, soup, soup/Caldo, caldo, caldo, and an award-winning teen romance series.

Her latest, The Empanadas That Abuela Made/Las empanadas que hacía la abuela, came out in November, just in time for her family's holiday tradition that inspired the book. Empanadas is a rollicking, enjoyable, and lightly sweetened bilingual book for younger readers filled with humorous, outrageous illustrations of Abuela's family making empanadas in a madcap manner. And, should the story inspire any would-be chefs, Gonzales Bertrand includes her Abuela's empanada recipe at the end. Much like the classic The House That Jack Built, Empanadas repeats itself throughout, adding another line with each turn of the page until it builds to its 14-line conclusion. Younger kids love it, she says; when they read the same lines again and again, they're learning how to recognize words and patterns, and having fun at the same time.

Gonzales Bertrand, who has been a St. Mary's writer-in-residence since 1999, hasn't forgotten her earliest forays into creative writing as a precocious fifth-grader who penned a novel in her spiral-bound notebook. When she began teaching high school students at Holy Cross, a Northwest Side Catholic school in an area not far from where she grew up, she found herself adapting Shakespeare and parts of the gospel for her all-male, predominately Mexican-American students. Eventually, she pursued a career in writing. "I learned very quickly you don't make much as an author," she jokes.

Diana Gonzales
Saturday, December 20
Valenzuela's Latino Bookstore
4535 Fredericksburg #115
Gonzales Bertrand's first three novels were published under New York's Avalon Press before being picked up by the University of Houston's Arte Público Press, who, under its Piñata Books imprint for children and adolescents, released Sweet Fifteen, a coming-of-age story set around a young girl's quinceañera celebration. "Without my intention, I became a young adult author," explains Gonzales Bertrand, who wrote the romantic story with adult themes - but without any sex. Following its release, teachers and librarians clamored for more books like Sweet Fifteen for Latino youths. "These kids needed to see themselves and their cultures reflected positively in literature," Gonzales Bertrand says, "because they get enough of the negative already."

To illustrate her point, she picks up Sip, slurp, soup soup/Caldo, caldo, caldo, her first picture book, and turns to a page midway through the poetically simple story about preparing Sunday morning soup. It is a picture of the Papá, sporting a neatly-trimmed mustache, grabbing Mamá, soup spoon in her hand, and lifting her in the air as he kisses her on her cheek while giving her a loving abrazo. "¡Vámonos, niños! Let's go buy the tortillas," he calls to his children who, three turns of the page later, have made playthings out of the maíz staple.

"What you value is always present in what you write," Gonzales Bertrand says. Images of men and women in healthy marriages, or of children playing with their food, appear all around us, she points out, despite stereotypes to the contrary. "I wanted to bring that warmth, that concept of familia, that strength you get from the people you love, to my books."

Of her books, Caldo is the most popular. It is already in its third printing, and has been included as part of several elementary textbooks. (Close to the Heart, a young adult book she completed in 2002, won "Best Romance" in 2003 from the National Latino Hall of Fame.) She has the same expectations for Empanadas, her most recent childrens' picture book.

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A page spread from The Empanadas That Abuela Made/Las empanadas que hacía la abuela

"All my writing starts off as writing for myself," Gonzales Bertrand emphasizes. She envisions ideas all the time, and jots down what she calls a "wonderful, creative mess" in her notebook. Between novels, she writes stories for children's picture books, but the process is no less demanding. Behind the deceptively simple allure lies a great deal of thought and planning.

During her revision process, Gonzales Bertrand thinks about the targeted age range, and what form the story will ultimately take on the page. For little children, she starts with a longer story and cuts it down. Her aim is to use as few different words as possible - in consideration of their limited vocabulary, each word must count. As part of her workshop process, Gonzales Bertrand shares her written drafts with friends, family members, her critique group, and - anonymously - her creative writing students. (In addition to building openness and trust within the classroom, sharing her stories also helps her students learn how to give constructive criticism.)

Going from idea to story takes several months, and then Gonzales Bertrand sends a draft to the publisher (in what she calls "an act of trust"), who selects an artist for the picture book. Arte Público sends back rough sketches and solicits feedback prior to the finished illustrations. As a writer, however, she respects the work that the artist does in enhancing the manuscript. Empanadas, like Caldo, is illustrated by Alex Pardo DeLange, who transformed Gonzales Bertrand's tale of traditional baking into something much more whimsical and playful than she had initially imagined. The author's favorite image? Abuelo and the grandchildren balancing on a larger-than-life rolling pin, while the family dog looks on.

Next for Gonzales Bertrand is a biography of University of Texas at San Antonio president and Fox Tech grad Ricardo Romo, and, after that, maybe another novel for high school students - something inspired, in part, by her two teenagers. She is looking forward to her reading at Valenzuela's on Saturday, December 20.

"Writing is a solitary act. Reading it is a form of communication," she says. In particular, she relishes when readers share their own interpretations of her work - and not just the little ones, either. Several of her former students from college, as well as her days as a high school teacher, have approached her at signings, book in hand, sometimes with their own daughters and sons in tow. It's a safe bet they will be reading about making empanadas and eating caldo on their own soon enough. And Gonzales Bertrand couldn't be more pleased once they do. •

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