All ages welcome Juan Felipe Herrera
JUAN FELIPE HERRERA
I told my story through that book [ The Upside Down Boy], figuring it was a good story to tell to children who are having difficult times, especially immigrant children. I want to choose a subject that the kids can relate to and that their parents can relate to.
Juan Felipe Herrera, poet laureate of t he United States for 2015 to 2016, writes books for children and young adults because, he told Pasatiempo, “the writer of the 21st century writes to many audiences and all ages.”
In his numerous collections of poetry, which include 2008’s Half of t he World i n Light: New and Selected Poems and 2013’s Senegal Taxi, he often t akes a fragmentary, collage approach, layering images with dialogue and stream-of- consciousness associations to convey the immigrant and borderlands experience in the United States. His books for younger readers have t he same basic st yle and subject matter — even 2003’s Super Cilantro Girl, about a little girl-turned- superhero who rescues her mother f rom detention at t he border. That story and others, including 1995’s Calling the Doves and Grandma & Me at the Flea (2002), are written in English and Spanish.
Herrera, the first Latino U. S. poet laureate, is on t he f aculty at t he University of California, Riverside. He was born in California, the son of migrant farm workers who eventually moved to the city of Los Angeles so Herrera could attend school. He chronicled the confusion of starting school without knowing much English in The Upside Down Boy (2000). “I was coming f rom a small, Spanish- speaking family that lived on ranchos at the outskirts of town, on the mountaintops,” he said. “My father was born in 1882. He learned a lot, but he never went to school. He came to the north country, to the United States, when he was fifteen. He became a cowboy, a ranch hand. Everything you can imagine that involves hard labor, he did it. I told my story through that book, figuring it was a good story to tell to children who are having difficult times, especially immigrant children. I want to choose a subject that the kids can relate to and that their parents can relate to.”
He tells another chapter of t hat st or y in 2005’s Downtown Boy, which is set in the 1950s and meant for slightly older readers. Juanito is the perpetual new kid in school, a fifth- grader at the mercy of his streetwise cousins and his father’s f requent absences. Downtown Boy i s written in bouncy free verse, which makes it a quick read because character development takes a back seat to the forward motion of the plot. An even more experimental approach to young adult literature is evident in books for teens, such as CrashBoomLove (1999), Skate Fate (2011), and Cinnamon Girl: Letters Found Inside a Cereal Box (2005), all of which are written in f ree verse. Skate Fate, about a gender-fluid former skateboarder in foster care who lost the use of his legs but decided to make poetry out of every experience, can be difficult to follow. Herrera said that when he wrote Skate Fate, he wasn’t familiar with the structure that such a book should have. “Sometimes I have an idea, there’s a story I want to write, but in my early novel sin verse, I was just guessing. It’s OK. I still like those books.” Included in this self- deprecating assessment of his own work was Cinnamon Girl, in which a teenager copes in the aftermath of 9/11 by gathering dust from New York City’s Lower East Side and returning it to Ground Zero.
Herrera’s books feature contemporary Latino and Latina characters who speak Spanish to their friends and loved ones. Such books can be difficult to find in a publishing world that tends to prioritize stories about white children and where diversity is often limited to historical fiction. Herrera’s books also offer readers an alternative path to appreciation for language and storytelling that diverges from the limited way literature is taught to schoolchildren in the United States — curricula that does not always include poetry and prose by contemporary writers of color. In some states, such as Arizona, books that emphasize ethnic contributions to American culture and history risk being banned in schools, which makes the continued publication and promotion of such books crucial to the future of children’s reading. In 2014, Herrera authored Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes, illustrated by Raúl Colón. The book highlights noteworthy Hispanic and Latin Americans, including labor leaders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, musician Joan Baez, Nobel Prize winner Luis Alvarez, actress Rita Moreno, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “It’s not what I write usually, so I had to switch gears. There’s no nonfiction in verse,” he said.
Herrera described the entries in the book as more than just superficial bios that touch on fame. Though the book is written for children, he made sure the background information — about each person’s inner drive and path to success — did his subjects justice. The project required copious research. “You would think that after all these years, there would be lengthy books and biographies about Latinos and Latinas that have lived in the United States, but that isn’t the case. I had to pull in a lot of sources to fill in the pictures of the heroes.”