INTERVIEW WITH DEBUT AUTHOR, NONIEQA RAMOS

If you are looking for the perfect gift for Mother’s Day (which will be here before we know it) look no further than NoNieqa Ramos’ debut picture book, Your Mama. All you need to figure out is what color ribbon you want to wrap it in. I’m so happy she could join me for today’s interview!

KC: Congratulations on your picture book debut and thanks for joining me on the blog! Can you share what inspired you to write Your Mama?

NR: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Kim! 

Any mamas out there who have juggled work, virtual school, relationships, family drama, finances, cooking, while maintaining 33 trains of thought like an Amtrak conductor, dispensing snacks 17 times a day– fresh fruit, rinsed and chopped–shoveling a litterbox for their third rescue cat–who as it turns out-ha ha ha–is a tad bit feral? Using hand sanitizer on a feral cat-induced flesh wound, not recommended.

Any mamas out there who decided chicken farming would be a great way to “pass the time” during the pandemic? (Because going outside in zero degrees to rescue chickens from Ricky Raccoon is a great destressor, right?) Etcetera ad infinitum, yo.

En serio, I hope that in every page of Your Mama, mamas feel seen, revered, and loved. This book is my love letter to caregivers who devote their hearts and souls to their precious Littles. The ones who stay up all night because their Little has a cough and they want to check-make-sure they are breathing. To the ones who stay …

In my life, this was my father, who was both father and mother, working 48-72 hour hospital shifts, teaching me to cook arroz, habichuelas, and bistec, stuffing us into the red Toyota for surprise road trips just like the mama in my book. 

“(Your Mama’s) got road trips whipped, 

and that’s not even the half of it.”

And these were the tías, the Bronx-bred Boricuas like him who prevailed over broken homes, poverty, systemic racism and sexism, and somehow between pulverizing glass ceilings and bringing their fellow Latinx with them, still found time to take us–their children and the cousins–to Tibbets Park. Shout out to the tía who took me to Elizabeth Seton College to interview me about my poetry on her college radio show–I was about eleven years old and talked a lot about my love of thesauruses LOL. I do not stand on the ground. I stand on their shoulders.

KC: Wow- that is so powerful. What has your journey to becoming a published author been like?

NR: Because I have always been considered an “experimental writer” or a “unique voice,” reception of my work can vary wildly. I knew I would have to toil over my craft and fight to have my voice heard.

I published my debut young adult novel The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary in 2019 with Carolrhoda Lab (Lerner Books), and there began my publishing journey with my protagonist Macy, unlikeable, uncontrollable, and guaranteed to break your things and your heart. Tired of her narrative being told through the filter of Child Protective Services, her Individualized Education Plan for intellectual disability, and her father’s imprisonment, Macy writes her own narrative through a dictionary.  This book journey gave me my first platform to talk about social justice, equity, and mental health awareness. So much of my publishing journey is inextricably tied to my desire change the narrative– and in community with my fellow BIPOC creators–write a world that is safe, nurturing, and inspiring for our Littles. 

I wrote my sophomore novel The Truth Is while recovering from breast cancer. Writing Verdad’s story of grief, loss, recovery, and reclamation of her queer and Borciua identity got me out of bed. TTI gave me a platform to examine internalized homophobia and prejudice, to rally for LGBTQIA rights–human rights– and spotlight LGBTQIA homeless youth. 

So far, the reception of Your Mama has been a lot of love, which is medicinal, especially after this past year. After today’s book birthday, I am reveling in the fact that I get to send every mama a hug, a message of the importance of self-care, and an acknowledgement of how pivotal and irreplaceable they are. I get to ask every Little about their favorite moments with their mamas and say, “You see how much you are loved! You are so special!”

KC: Can you share a little bit about your writing process for this book?

NR: My papi, who always carried a brick-thick sci-fi book, said, “Never stop learning.” 

My own experience as an educator amplified my father’s mantra that knowledge is never an end point. I have always admired my partner, who reads for pleasure and rereads for craft. My inspiration for Your Mama began with homework. I read, relished, and studied piles of picture books with my child. 

On my office chalkboard, I scribbled myself the assignment to approach a concept or narrative with a fresh perspective.  I let the idea germinate for a few weeks before it parachuted over our German shepherd Rocky, umbrellaed across the barbecue pit still redolent with Adobo-coated pork chops slathered in mesquite sauce, and descended into the rose garden of my childhood.  I thought, what if, what if I could flip the script of Yo’ mama jokes? What if I could turn them into a valentine, a tribute, an ode celebrating mothers?

My first drafts always start off as a one-way conversation in my brain. When I hear a response, that’s when I know I have an idea worth exploring. Your Mama so sweet… The pure joy this phrase evoked in my heart carried the story forward. 

KC: Amazing! Jacqueline Alcántara’s illustrations are exquisite! I love the artistry of the hand-lettered text and how each page spread is saturated with so much color. Do you have a favorite page spread?

NR: Jackie’s work is exquisite, and embedded within her artistry courses her reverence and love for her own beautiful mama. Jackie’s mama attended our book launch at Boogie Down Books to cheer her on.

Since it is impossible to decide on a favorite, today I want to revel in the spread for these lines: 

Your Mama so woke.

She gonna stand by and watch injustice?

Nope.

She takes all you kids when she votes. 

With posters homemade, she marches in every parade.

The educator in me thinks, what an opening for classroom discussion! When Jackie and I launched our book at Boogie Down Books she asked the children, “What would you write on your own posters?” Mama and educator Dr. Carla España held her precious baby in her arms and typed in the chat, ¡Si se puede!

KC: As a former educator myself, I agree that this spread is a perfect conversation starter! I noticed you have another picture book coming out early next year called Beauty Woke. The cover is so vibrant and stunning! Can you tell us a little about that project?

NR: Beauty Woke is a modern spin on the fairytale Sleeping Beauty written in free verse. In the beginning of the story, Beauty and her family are preparing to participate in the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Before the pandemic, the Puerto Rican Day Parade took place annually along Fifth Avenue in the Manhattan borough of New York City. The parade was held on the second Sunday in June, in honor of the 3 million plus inhabitants of Puerto Rico and all people of Puerto Rican birth or heritage, like myself, living on the U.S. mainland. On this day Puerto Rican achievements, history, dance, food, and music are celebrated. Major celebrities turn out like Rosario Dawson, Rita Moreno, and Sonia Manzano. But as Louis Maldonado, board chair for the National Puerto Rican Day Parade said, “The parade is more than a celebration of pride and culture. It’s a platform for preserving our heritage while advancing our community by informing on important issues and promoting educational achievement.”

Beauty has a strong relationship with her Abuelita who reminds her to be proud of her Puerto Rican heritage. But one evening, Beauty sits with her tío and watches the news. She hears about President Trump downplaying the number of deaths caused by Hurricane Maria, a deadly Category 5 hurricane that devastated Dominica, St Croix, and Puerto Rico in September 2017. That hurricane claimed an estimated 5000 lives, many of whom died from negligent government response. She hears about migrant immigrant children caged at detention centers and learns of the deaths of Felipe Gómez Alonzo, 8, who fell ill and died in U.S. custody Dec. 24, 2018, after migrating with his father from Guatemala and the death of 7-year-old Guatemalan girl Jakelin Caal. Overwhelmed, she disavows the parade and falls into a deep sleep of dejection and hopelessness. Only with the love and strength of her family, her ancestors, and her community can she emerge from despair, embrace her cultural identity, and awaken to the beauty, power, and strength that pulses through her veins.

KC: Sounds like another powerful and important story. Can’t wait to get my hands on it. What advice do you have for aspiring kidlit authors?

NR: My advice to writers is community is always the answer. We cannot be unlearners, learners, disrupters and rebuilders, and antiracists in isolation.  In community you access information, knowledge, insight, wisdom, the opportunity for course correction, and growth.  Especially in a career fraught with rejection, community is vital for mental health and emotional support.

My second piece of advice: Always revise, but stick with your vibe. 

I got rerouted off my path during the submissions process for Your Mama. An editor asked for a revision with a traditional narrative arc, and I tried to jump through that hoop. I am glad I tripped over it. Because Your Mama was meant to be exactly what it is– a lyrical ode, a Valentine. 

There’s a delicate balance between revision and sticking with your vision. It’s of the upmost importance to have your work in the right editor’s hands. Erika, Kwame, and I were a match! 

KC: So well said. Thank you so much for this outstanding interview, NoNieqa and congrats again on your debut!

NoNieqa Ramos wrote THE DISTURBED GIRL’S DICTIONARY, which received stars from Booklist, Voya, and Foreword. It was a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection and a 2019 In the Margins Top Ten pick. Versify released her debut picture book YOUR MAMA on April 6th, 2021, which received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus. Her second pb HAIR STORY releases from Lerner September 6th, 2022.  NoNieqa is a proud member of Las Musas, The Soaring 20s, and PB Debut Troupe 21 collectives.

5 comments

  1. “Always revise, but stick with your vibe.” It’s so important to remember this sage advice rather than desperately trying to make your work fit the vision of every editor (or agent) who shows a modicum of interest. YOUR MAMA (and all of NoNieqa’s books) sounds amazing. I’m looking forward to reading it!

    Liked by 1 person

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