Pat Mora likes to write about her Mexican-American family. Many ideas for her children's books come from growing up in the desert.
Interview Transcript
The author was interviewed by Scholastic students.

When you were growing up, did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I always liked reading, and I always liked writing, but I don't think I thought of being a writer. I say that to students all the time because I never saw a writer like me — who was bilingual. So it's important for kids to realize that writers come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are noisy, and some are quiet. Some speak English, and some speak Spanish.

When you are writing a poem, do your ideas come to you in Spanish or in English, or both?
Because I have spent more of my life speaking English than Spanish, most of my ideas come to me in English. I always spoke English and Spanish at home when I was growing up. But because in school all my classes were in English, I think in English more of the time. Unless I'm visiting a Spanish-speaking country, or if I'm with friends and we're speaking Spanish.

We read "Los Petalos" in our literature book. The poem was translated into Spanish for our book by Nicolas Kanellos. Does this mean that you wrote it first in English?
I did write it first in English, and Dr. Kanellos edited that book. And so the book company must've asked him to translate it into Spanish for them. Sometimes I'm asked to translate my own work, but sometimes I don't even know that the poem has been translated into Spanish! With that poem, I didn't even know it had been translated until I saw it in the book!

What was the inspiration for Pablo's Tree?
I got the idea when I was in Oregon and someone was driving me to the airport. Along the way I saw a tree that was covered with pink balloons and that picture stuck in my mind. That image stayed with me. Around the same time, I was also interested in writing a book about adoption, because I have a young friend who was adopted. Sometimes books comes from two different ideas or two strands of yarn that we knit together. When I saw the tree, I thought, "I'll write a book about adoption in which every year the grandfather decorates a tree for the boy's birthday." And I did!

What book that you've written are you most proud of?
I'm proud of each of the books for different reasons. I'm proud of A Birthday Basket for Tia because it was my first children's book and because it was about an aunt who was very special to me. I'm proud of This Big Sky because I love the desert and the creatures that live in it. Also, in that book, I got to play with words in order to share what it is that I enjoy about the desert and its creatures.

Do you ever write about things that happen in your own life?
Well, I mentioned A Birthday Basket for Tia — my aunt did celebrate a 90th birthday, and we did have a surprise party. And she did put down her cane and dance with the gentlemen at the party. And I liked seeing that so much that I decided to write a children's book about it.

Sometimes I use events from my own life in my work, but not always. Sometimes I just come up with an idea because of something I've read or because of a story I've heard. For example, once I read a story in a magazine about a little boy in Mexico who wanted to give a present at Christmas. And he didn't have a lot of money, so he was very sad. And all he could find to give was this little plant. The plant grew by the side of the road. And because he was sad, he was crying. And his tear, when it hit the leaf of the plant, turned the plant red. So I read that idea, and I thought it might be fun to write a book about it. And that book is The Gift of the Poinsettia.

What is the hardest part of being a writer?
The hardest thing is always finding enough time and quiet. All of us have noisy lives — the phone rings, and we have many errands to do. And so it's hard for a writer to make sure that she has enough quiet time to keep writing her books. So that means that I don't see my friends as much as I would like to see them.

What is your favorite part?
My favorite part of being a writer is thinking that someone is going to enjoy my book the way I enjoy other books. I think one of the reasons we become writers is because we enjoy books so much that we want to be part of that writing world. We want to give someone else that joy.

Is there anyone in your life who inspired you to write?
Well, the aunt in A Birthday Basket for Tia is one inspiration in my life. She was a wonderful storyteller. And when I was little, I always liked to read, but I also liked to listen to her tell stories.

What was your favorite book as a child?
I have so many books that I loved. I remember finding the Laura Ingalls Wilder books in the library — this was before the TV series — and I loved the first book so much I read the whole series. I also loved biographies, and in the third grade I read a lot of biographies of people like Betsy Ross and Davy Crockett.

Did you read a lot of poetry as a child?
I had many wonderful teachers who had us memorize poetry. Although, at the time, I probably grumbled and griped about it — it was helpful to me. Some of those poems I still remember — "The Highway Men," for example. In eighth grade we had to memorize a poem every week and recite it on Friday. But I always liked poetry and I had lots of books in my house so I would just open them up and read all sorts of poetry.

Who is your favorite writer now?
A poet whose work I love very much is Pablo Neruda. He was from Chile and wrote in Spanish. He became so famous that you can buy his books all over the world, in many different languages. In fact, I have his books that are printed bilingually — English on one side of the page, Spanish on the other.

How is writing poetry different from writing stories? Which do you like best?
The main difference is that when you write poetry, every word matters more. You have to listen very, very carefully to how words sound next to each other. Sometimes you also have rhyme in poetry and much of the time you also have rhythm in poetry. I probably like writing poems the best. For me, writing poems is more like play — like I'm putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I pick up words and see if they fit together.

What do you think makes a poem good? Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
The main advice I have is to read poetry. I do this when I'm going to sit down to work on a new poem — I always take the time to read some poetry first. Because we don't usually speak in poetry or write in poetry, and it helps to let poetry into ourselves, to get us back into the mood and to remind us how careful poetry is about every word.

How do you choose the subjects you want to write about? Why do you like to write about animals and nature so much?
Many writers say that we don't choose our subjects, the subjects choose us. What that means is that writers don't always control what it is that interests them or excites them. It isn't so much that I plan to write about nature, but when I'm in it, I'm surrounded by it and filled with examples of it. For example, when I was writing This Big Sky, I was living in New Mexico. I could look up and see the big sky or hear a snake and think, "Oh, I want to write about that!" I would get excited about it. That's where poetry comes from — from our very strong feelings. Whether it's sadness or happiness — that is the place from which poetry will leap forth.

How long does it take you to write a book?
You can write the first draft of a poem in one sitting. It could be 5 or 15 minutes. But that poem is usually not finished. I tell elementary students that for them, rewriting isn't that important. When you're first writing you need a lot of practice — you need to write many, many poems. But when you get to the point that you're trying to improve the poems, that's when rewriting becomes important. I may rewrite a poem 25 times! Changing words, listening to the rhythm of words. Because you could have a wonderful word — like zigzag which has a lot of movement in it — but it's only going to be right in certain places. It's that very careful listening that helps you improve a poem. I always read my poems out loud when I'm revising them.

Do you travel for work? If so, where do you go?
I travel a LOT! Often, I'm visiting schools and speaking at conferences. Since I write both for children and for adults, sometimes I'm also visiting college campuses. I might speak to college students in the morning and second or third graders in the afternoon and visit a middle school the next day. There's a lot of variety.

My husband is an archaeologist, so I have lot of opportunity to travel with him too. I have been to Greece and Bali, and of course I'm always looking for ideas. As I always say, writers are like insects — our antennas are always up. We're always looking for a good story or a good line.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to read, and I like to talk to my family. I don't live near any of my family, so I talk to them a lot on the phone and by e-mail. I like to walk and to travel. And I like to enjoy my friends.

Do you have children?
I have three children, and they are all now taller than I am! Bill is a textbook editor. Libby is a lawyer. And the youngest one is Cissy, and she's a student at vet school. They all live in Texas right now.

Did your children influence any of your books?
My youngest daughter's name is Cecilia (Cissy), and the little girl in A Birthday Basket for Tia is named Cecilia. And my daughter loves cats, so I put a cat in that book for her. When I was writing the counting book Uno Dos Tres, One, Two, Three I was thinking about my two daughters and what they might enjoy counting in the Mexican market. When they were little, we lived in El Paso, which is where I was born. And we always liked to shop at the Mexican market.

What is your favorite part of Mexican culture?
One of the things that I like most about Mexican culture is that families spend time enjoying one another. So I like the mood and the music, but I think what I like best is that in Mexican culture families are important.

Do you still visit Mexico?
Yes, I'm always very excited when I have an opportunity to visit Mexico. When I was a little girl, because I lived in El Paso, which is on the border, I went across to Mexico all the time. Now that I don't live close to the border, it makes me sad that I don't get to go more often.

As a child, did you ever feel different from other kids because of your Hispanic heritage?
There were times when I wished that my Mexican heritage were a part of my school day. I wished that we had had books that had Spanish in them. And I wished that I had seen things about Mexican culture on the bulletin boards and in the library. One of the reasons that I write children's books is because I want Mexican culture and Mexican-American culture to be a part of our schools and libraries.

What suggestions do you have for students interested in learning more about their ethnic heritage?
One suggestion is to interview the oldest person in your family. I wish I had spent more time listening to my aunt's and my grandmother's stories. I wish I had written them down. Another suggestion is to visit your library and ask your friendly librarian for help in finding some good books about your heritage. I always say that librarians are very special people!

What do you think about current efforts to eliminate bilingual education in public schools?
I think it's really sad. And very ignorant. Every language is a complex way of describing our world. And all languages are equally good and important and beautiful. Of course we want to encourage people to speak English well because so much of our life in the U.S. takes place in English. But I always want to encourage those who are lucky enough to hear another language at home to learn it well, too. I feel very lucky to be bilingual, and I just wish that I were trilingual!

Do you think there is still discrimination today against Mexican Americans?
The sad but honest answer is yes. Unfortunately, some people still haven't learned that we're all equal. And that in every group, there are people who are intelligent or lazy or talented. Some people still think that we can judge people by the way they look or by the way they sound or by the kind of car they drive.

Did you ever want to have another career besides being a writer?
Oh, yes. I wanted to be a nun for a long time — until I was in high school. And then I wanted to be a doctor. And then I became a teacher, and then a university administrator. And while I was a university administrator, I also became a museum director. But then I started to do some writing when I was in my 30s. And I decided that if I kept working at these other jobs, it was going to be very hard for me to keep improving as a writer. I needed more time to work at my writing. So now I do writing and speaking full-time. Sometimes there are parts of the other jobs that I miss — I liked students very much. But now I spend time writing, and then I go to visit a school or attend a conference, and I'm around people. And then I come home and do more writing. So it's a balance.

What were you like as a teacher?
I was very strict! I expected to teach English — that's what my degree is in. But when I started out, they needed a Spanish teacher. So I taught Spanish, and then I taught high school English. And then I taught English at the university level for a while. I was always strict at the beginning of the year, but as the students and I became friends, and once they knew that when I said something I meant it, we had a good time together.

Why did you want to be a writer?
I wanted to be an author because I like reading books so much. Books are just like friends to me. And I know how happy books make me. And I wanted to try to do that for other people. To make them happy.

Do you have any advice for children who are interested in writing?
Number 1: Be a reader. Often I meet students, even at colleges and universities, who want to be writers — but they don't read! Writers are not only people who talk about writing, writers are people who read and write.

Number 2: Enjoy rewriting. When I was younger, I did not like rewriting. I wanted my teacher to put an A+ at the top of the page — always. And now my favorite part of writing is revising. I enjoy trying to make each draft better than the last.

What do you do when you get writer's block?
Up to this point, I've always had more ideas than time. But I think that if I did have writer's block, I would tell myself that I needed to just start writing and not worry about whether what I'm writing is good enough. Sometimes we just have to start writing, and then read what we've written and find one thing we like. And then start working from there. Everyone has good ideas inside, and everyone has stories they could tell or make up. But sometimes we spend too much time worrying about whether our story or our paper is good enough. It's important to remember that no one can tell the story that you can tell in your own way.

Do you want any of your books to be made into movies?
Anyone who works in picture books is curious to see what the illustrator will do with the words we wrote. Just as I am always curious to see what the illustrator would do, I would be curious to see what a moviemaker would do with any of my books. But I like thinking that the books are like movies in the imagination of the children who read them.

How do you pick an illustrator for your books?
I wish that I got to decide the illustrators for my books! But editors select the illustrator. When I'm lucky, an editor shows me the work of an illustrator to ask me if I think it is a good match for the book. For example, I have a book coming out in May about my mother when she was a little girl. It was very important to me to feel that the illustrator was going to draw my mother and her family in a way that I thought was suitable. The illustrator and author usually do not meet or ever speak. And that's often a surprise, even to teachers and librarians. I have never met or spoken to the illustrator of This Big Sky, Steve Jenkins. I think that he did a wonderful job of illustrating the desert that I love, but I've never spoken to him.

What awards have you won that are important to you?
Tomás and the Library Lady won an award called the Tombs Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award. It was very exciting for me because the award is named for the same Tomas as in the book! Also it's exciting because I was finally able to meet the illustrator, Raul Colon.

How do you know when to end a book?
That's a very good question! Sometimes you have to experiment to end a book at a certain point. And then you go back in a week or two to reread what you wrote. Or maybe you read it to some family or friends. It's not easy to decide what the best ending is for a book.

Pat, do you have any final words for the audience?
I hope that students will read many, many wonderful books this year. And I hope that all students will want to be bilingual, since language is so special.
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