It's my pleasure to interview author Laura Lacamara on day 2 of the blog tour for her debut picture book, Floating on Mama's Song. Published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of Harper Collins, this bilingual book features text in English and Spanish and illustrations by Yuyi Morales. The release date is Wednesday, September 1. Comment on any of the blogs on the tour this week (see below), and you could win a signed copy.
I was intrigued to learn Floating on Mama’s Song was based on a true story – your mother was an opera singer in Cuba. I gather the idea of having the mama float was the inspiration that helped the story – not to mention the characters - take off. Where did that inspiration come from and how did the concept evolve?
L.L. Initially, I was thinking visually, as an illustrator, when I came up with the idea for Floating on Mama’s Song. I needed a story to illustrate in my Children’s Book Illustration class, and I knew I wanted to incorporate something of my Cuban family background. That’s when I got the inspiration to write about my opera-singing mother. Imagining illustrating the characters’ costumes and the lush tropical setting excited me artistically, but I still needed a story to tell. Then, in the middle of the night, it came to me! What would happen if mama’s singing literally lifted her off the ground? Who in the story would love it and be supportive? Who might feel threatened by mama’s floating and want to stop it?
That’s when the story became deeply personal for me. I know first-hand how crucial creative expression can be to one’s happiness. My mother dropped her operatic career after our family had fled Cuba. I often wondered how my mother’s life would have been different, if she had sung opera in the USA.
As an artist, you originally wrote the story as a project you hoped to illustrate. When HarperCollins acquired the manuscript, they chose to have someone else do the illustrations. That someone ended up being the award-winning illustrator, Yuyi Morales. Can you describe how the process unfolded?
L.L. When it came time to choose the illustrator for Floating on Mama’s Song, editor Katherine Tegen included me in the process. We could choose among three or four different artists. My first choice was Yuyi Morales. Yuyi’s magical flowing style seemed perfect for my story. I was so thrilled when Yuyi agreed to illustrate my book that it barely fazed me when Katherine Tegen said Yuyi wouldn’t be able to get to my project for a while, because she had other contracts to fulfill first. It ended up taking a few years from signing the contract to publication, but now that the book is complete, and I see what a magnificent job Yuyi did, I can honestly say it was worth the wait!
In effect, Floating on Mama’s Song is a picture book in the magical realism genre, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez for children. Are you a magical realism aficionado? Who are some of your literary favorites?
L.L. I didn’t set out to do “magical realism.” My story just (magically!) turned out to fit that description. I’ve always loved the idea of breaking free of our ordinary daily life constraints -- which is the quality that attracts me to children’s books. Anything goes, when it comes to a child’s imagination. There are no limits.
And, though I’ve admired the magical realism novels I’ve read, I’d say a bigger inspiration for me has been my own dream life. I’ve always had flying dreams. Years ago, The Art of Dreaming, written by Carlos Castaneda, inspired me to practice “lucid dreaming,” where you will yourself to wake up inside your dream and then consciously direct the course of the rest of the dream. My dreams always involved flying. I don’t have the active dream life I once had, but, on occasion, I still have an amazing lucid dream. Okay, so I’m a freaky earth-mama hippie artist that wants to unleash the conventional ties that bind me and let my spirit soar. But, I’m also a Latina, and I love the essence of my Cuban culture, where drama and emotional intensity are coupled with the ability to laugh at ourselves and not take life too seriously. And, when all is said and done, I feel most deeply “at home” speaking Spanish and eating a plate of frijoles negros, black beans, with platanos fritos, fried plantains, followed by my mama’s one and only flan. The best flan in the whole world; really, it is!
The text has a lyrical quality, which suits the subject matter - music. Do you write poetry? Did you study music growing up? Do you sing or play an instrument? What other influences contributed to your writing this book?
L.L. I never formally studied an instrument growing up, except for a few piano lessons my mother gave me at home. At U.C. Santa Cruz, I picked up a guitar and learned a few chords. Ten years later, when I went to Cal State Long Beach to complete my degree, I minored in music. I used my skills to sing Spanish songs and play guitar, when I taught Spanish to kids for three years. I must admit, though, that I have a block when it comes to singing in public. I saw my mother as the singer in our family, my father and I as the visual artists, and my brother as the actor. (I have a very artistic family!) I guess I have an inner critical voice keeping me from singing and stepping outside my family “role.” I guess I need to reread Floating on Mama’s Song!
The story is also infused with imagery and sensory references that evoke the Caribbean:
“The mangos were ripe and music was in the air.”
“I opened the dusty box. It smelled sweet like sugar cane.”
You left Cuba as a baby and yet you have captured vivid details of the setting and culture. How so? Did your family adhere to Cuban cultural traditions after moving to America?
L.L. When I was six months old, my family left Cuba and moved to the US, but a few years later, our family moved to Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island with a culture very much like that of Cuba. That’s where I attended Kindergarten. I have vivid memories of a rooster and chickens running around our neighbor’s yard, warm rain coming down in sudden afternoon downpours, bathtub-temperature ocean water, and having to step around hundreds of little dead frogs washed up on the shore. I was raised speaking Spanish, eating my mom’s wonderful Cuban cooking, and ringing in the new year by throwing a bucket of water out the front door at midnight to dispel evil spirits. Also, for information and inspiration, I asked my mother many questions about her own childhood in Cuba.
What are you working on now?
L.L. Besides promoting Floating on Mama’s Song, I will soon be promoting my other upcoming bilingual book: The Runaway Piggy (the first picture book I’ve illustrated) written by James Luna will be published by Piñata Books on November 30, 2010. I also recently signed another illustration contract with Piñata Books to illustrate a new bilingual picture book, Alicia’s Frothy Aguas Frescas, written by Lupe Ruiz-Flores. That book comes out Fall 2011. Finally, I’m working on writing a new picture book manuscript. More on that to come...
Thank you Laura, and good luck with the launch of your new books!
Visit Laura's website to learn more, and see some of her beautiful art, at: LauraLacamara.com
Here's the schedule for this week's blog tour:
Monday, August 30 - Floating on Mama's Song synopsis, reviews:
Wednesday, September 1- Interview with editor Katherine Tegen:
Thursday, September 2 - Interview with illustrator Yuyi Morales:
Friday, September 3 – Announcement of contest winner:
Please comment here, or on any of the blogs above, to be entered in the drawing!