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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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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