Interview with author Alexandra Alessandri
by Aya Khalil
Isabel and her Colores Go To School author, Alexandra Alessandri shares the importance of bilingual picture books and how her experiences are weaved into her writing.
Aya: Hi Alexandra! I am so excited to interview you today for our blog. Your second picture book, Isabel and her Colores Go to School, comes out on July 15th. Would you please tell our readers a brief summary of your picture book?
Alexandra: Thank you so much for having me on the blog, Aya! Isabel and Her Colores Go to School is about Isabel, who’s nervous about starting school and making friends because she doesn’t speak English. Isabel is artistic and processes emotions and language through color, both of which help her navigate—and ultimately bridge—the language divide.
Aya: I love that the book is bilingual and when I read the advanced reader copy, I was filled with so many emotions. I have a background in teaching English as a second language, so I've taught many English Language Learners. You're an educator yourself. Is this picture book based on any real experiences?
Alexandra: This made my day—thank you! Isabel and Her Colores Go to School is based on my own experience of starting kindergarten in New York City while not knowing English. My story was slightly different—I literally got lost in school because I didn’t understand the teacher—but I tried to bring those emotions to Isabel’s story. And, as an educator at a college with a large number of students who are English Language Learners, I know this is a story that is true for many immigrants and children of immigrants.
Aya: I love that it's written in both English and Spanish. How was the process like? Did you write the manuscript in both languages or did you need a translator? How was it like going on submission with a bilingual book?
Alexandra: I’m incredibly excited that this will be a bilingual book. I wrote and submitted Isabel and Her Colores in English with Spanish sprinkled in, as this code-switching is a natural part of my own way of speaking. My wonderful editor suggested it be published as a bilingual text, and it was everything I didn’t realize I wanted. I had the opportunity to translate the story then, and I’m grateful to have had my family and fellow Spanish-speaking authors who helped me where I stumbled.
Aya: Wow I love that your editor made that suggestion! I’ve noticed there are some recurring themes in your picture books that I definitely relate to. Being introverted, finding your voice and being multicultural. Why do you think these themes are important nowadays?
Alexandra: As a shy introvert who is the daughter of Colombian immigrants, these themes are personal to me, and I think (hope!) they speak to many others. Often, kids who are shy and introverted aren’t receiving the message that their voices and ideas matter, too, and I think it’s important for them to know their voices matter, too.
As for the theme of being multicultural, one of the reasons it’s important for me personally to write about Colombian American characters is because I grew up with the microaggressions that came with being Colombian in the 80s and 90s—the jokes, innuendoes, and stereotypes—and I hated it. It’s perhaps why I’m determined to share other stories of the Colombian and Colombian American experience. Nowadays, it’s more important than ever that we push back against the “single story” and show the beautiful tapestry of the human experience.
Aya: I absolutely agree! What are some challenges you have faced in the publishing world, or just in general, as a Colombian American?
Alexandra: I think I’ve been lucky in terms of how my characters and stories have been received in the publishing world, though that might be in part because I embraced writing from my cultural identity around the time that the push for diverse stories grew. However, when I first started writing (with a YA fantasy!) I didn’t see a place for my reality in that genre. Even now, the number of Colombian/Colombian American stories are limited, especially in the fantasy genre. I’m hoping to see that change.
Aya: It’s definitely because you’re a great writer! Why do you write children's books?
Alexandra: Because I want to help raise readers. Books were always a refuge for me as a kid, and I want to offer children stories a place of solace in a world that is often hard.
Aya: What would you tell writers of color who are nervous to put their words out there for the world to see and get their work published?
Alexandra: It can be scary because it’s so easy to think our stories don’t matter, that no one’s going to want to read about our realities. But they do! Our stories and experiences are important, they’re enough, and they can be that lifeline for a child who might not see themselves in the literature they read. (On the flip side, we don’t only have to write about our lived realities. We should not be boxed in!)
Aya: Yes, absolutely! Is there anything else you're working on that you're allowed to tell our readers?
Alexandra: I have some exciting things happening, but nothing I can say right now. I’m hoping to be able to share soon, though!
Aya: Fair enough - publishing is so secretive ha! Where can people find you on social media?
Alexandra: I’m infrequently on Twitter and Instagram, but I love connecting with readers, teachers, and authors!
Aya: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! I can’t wait until I get my physical copy of this beautiful book that is much needed in the world!
Alexandra Alessandri is the author of Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! (Albert Whitman) and Isabel and Her Colores go to School (Sleeping Bear Press). The daughter of Colombian immigrants, she is also an Associate Professor of English at Broward College and a poet, with some of her work appearing in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, Atlanta Review, and Young Adult Review Network. Alexandra lives in Florida with her husband and son.