Assistant Director Interview: Marina Tristán on Piñata Books (Arte Público Press)

Marina Tristán is the assistant director of Arte Público Press. She is responsible for day-to-day operations, with a particular emphasis in marketing and promoting the press’ books, authors, and programs.

A native Texan, she has worked for Arte Público Press for 25 years. Prior to working at Arte Público, she worked for the USA Today Houston Bureau and the Houston NBC affiliate. She is a graduate of the University of Houston, with a degree in journalism and Spanish.

From the publisher: “Piñata Books is Arte Público Press‘ imprint for children’s and young adult literature. It seeks to authentically and realistically portray themes, characters, and customs unique to U.S. Hispanic culture.”

What inspired you to focus your career on books, especially those published for young readers?

I didn’t consciously seek to focus my career on the book business, though I was an avid reader as a child and I remain a lover of books of all sorts, whether for children or adults. I, like so many people, found myself in the right spot at the right time.

I had just graduated from the University of Houston and was taking graduate courses in Spanish while working at USA Today’s Houston Bureau and at the Houston NBC affiliate.

I went to talk to my professor, Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, the founder and director of Arte Público Press, about a paper I was writing for his class, and he encouraged me to apply for a job with the press.

Could you tell us about Arte Público / Piñata Books?

Arte Público Press’s mission is the publication, promotion and dissemination of Latino literature for a variety of audiences, from early childhood to adult, through the complete gamut of delivery systems, including personal performance as well as print and electronic media.

Arte Público Press is committed to reforming the national culture to more accurately include, value, and reflect Hispanic historical and contemporary contributions.

A program of the University of Houston, Arte Público Press is the oldest and largest Hispanic press in the country. In addition to publishing contemporary literature for adults, Arte Público’s imprint for children and young adults, Piñata Books, publishes children’s literature that authentically portrays themes and customs unique to U.S. Hispanic culture.

Arte Público also has a research and development program called Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project; it works to locate, identify, preserve and make accessible in a variety of formats the literary contributions of U.S. Hispanics from colonial times through 1960 in what today is the United States.

How do you address diversity within U.S. Hispanic culture?

The authors of our books are as diverse as the Latino population in the United States. We publish books by all the groups of Latinos found here, including Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Central Americans, and others from Latin America.

Another way that we address diversity is through language. We publish books in English, Spanish, and bilingual formats, so our books are available to Hispanics who have lived here for generations and to recent immigrants more comfortable in their native Spanish language.

Could you share with us some history of the line?

Arte Público Press grew out of a literary journal started by our founder and director, Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, who was teaching at Indiana University – Northwest. He realized that his Hispanic students didn’t have the same opportunities as non-Latinos to have their creative work published, so he started a literary magazine, Revista Chicano-Riqueña, in 1972.

The first book, a poetry collection called La Carreta Made a U-Turn written by Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera, was published in 1979. Piñata Books was launched in 1994.

What is its relationship with the University of Houston?

In 1980, Dr. Kanellos was invited to join the faculty at the University of Houston and to bring the press along with him. Arte Público is a university affiliated press in that the university doesn’t decide what gets published but it does provide space and services.

The press benefits by receiving office and warehouse space, utilities, and services (from university departments such as Human Resources, Purchasing, Legal, etc.), and the university benefits from our work in terms of awards, recognition, and funds raised.

Does being based in Houston give the house a different point of view than, say, a NYC-based publisher? If so, how?

Probably more important than our geographic location is our mission, as a non-profit organization, to publish and promote Latino literature and culture. We work with Mexican Americans in the Southwest, from California to Texas; Puerto Ricans in the Northeast; and Cuban Americans in the Southeast.

How would you describe the list now?

Our list has definitely expanded in terms of the types of books we publish and the audience for which they are appropriate. Each season we publish original creative fiction for adults in English; non-fiction books for adults in English that run the gamut from history to public policy; translations into Spanish of creative fiction by U.S. Hispanic authors; bilingual picture books for kids; contemporary fiction in English for teens; and bilingual chapter books for intermediate readers.

Are there any particular books for young readers that you’d like to highlight?

We’re very excited about all of the Piñata Books on the Fall 2011 list. We have books coming out by my favorites, young adult authors René Saldaña, Jr. and Ray Villareal and children’s authors Monica Brown and Diane Gonzales Bertrand.

And we are extremely proud to be publishing Judith Ortiz Cofer’s very first picture book for children, ¡A bailar! Let’s Dance. It is a lyrical, warm look at one community’s love of salsa, both the music and the dance.

What new directions should we know about?

The response to our bilingual “flip” books for intermediate readers has been phenomenal. We’ve published about ten books in this format, that is, one side has the English version, flip the book over and there’s a Spanish version.

The second book in René Saldaña’s Mickey Rangel Mystery series, The Lemon Tree Caper / La intriga del limonero, is being published in this format and it will be released October 31, 2011.

The first book in the series, The Case of the Pen Gone Missing / El caso de la pluma perdida, was a huge success, so we expect a similar response to the new book.

Big picture, what makes Arte Público / Piñata Books special?

Our books are unique because they’re original stories written by U.S. Hispanic authors and they reflect the lives of Hispanics in this country. That is, they’re not translations of stories that have no meaning for Latino kids.

For instance, one of our most popular picture books is called Pepita Talks Twice / Pepita habla dos veces. A young girl struggles with having to translate for the grocer, her teacher, etc., so she decides to quit speaking Spanish. She doesn’t realize that this means she can’t sing songs with the neighbors, talk to her grandmother, and worst of all, her dog Lobo won’t respond when she calls him Wolf. But in order to save Wolf’s life, she has to speak Spanish, and she realizes that it’s a good thing to be bilingual.

All immigrant kids, whether Latino or not, can relate to translating for their parents.

Could you speak to the need for youth literature that reflects the U.S. Hispanic experience?

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is hearing stories from teachers and librarians about the impact our books have on their students. We are frequently told that our books are the ones that disappear and need to be re-ordered over and over again. And while I don’t condone stealing books, it does make me happy that kids want our books.

I’ll never forget a story an English teacher told me years ago while I was exhibiting our books at the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference. She had a confirmed non-reader, a kid who had never read a book. And one morning, she found him on the steps of the school, reading one of our books, Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest. Not only was he reading, but he was reading for pleasure on his own time.

Stories like that make everything we do worthwhile. Kids need to see themselves reflected in books; they need to know that their culture, language, family, etc. are valuable and worthy.

How about the need for bilingual books?

Obviously, there are lots of uses for bilingual books. But one story I heard from a teacher confirms that our books create a bridge from school to home. A teacher in New York City had a Puerto Rican student who loved one of our books, Estrellita se despide de su isla / Estrellita Says Good-bye to Her Island, which is about a Puerto Rican girl who leaves her island for the Mainland. The girl was constantly checking the book out to take home to read with her mother. Finally, the teacher bought the book to give to the girl so she would have her own copy.

The power of books never ceases to amaze and thrill me.

How do you connect children’s-YA titles to teachers and librarians?

We do a number of things to make sure teachers and librarians know about our books. We exhibit our books at annual conferences of the Texas Library Association, the American Library Association, the National Association of Bilingual Educators, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

We produce and mail brochures focusing on our Piñata Books for children and young adults and we submit books to numerous recommended reading lists sponsored by teachers and librarians. We also facilitate and support author visits to schools, libraries, community centers, etc. We also actively engage with teachers and librarians via social media marketing such as Facebook, Scribd, and Twitter.

Have your marketing strategies changed during the recent economic downturn? If so, how and what is your rationale?

Like everyone these days, we have had to be much more careful with our expenditures. We have found ways to save money in regards to the cost of printing and mailing our brochures; we have eliminated some conferences from our schedule; and unfortunately, we have had to reduce our contributions to author travel. Our authors actively work to promote their books all over the country, and these days they have to incur more of the costs to do these events.

Where your house description reads “realistically,” should we take that to mean that you’re closed to speculative fiction?

Well, I don’t think we should ever say “never,” but the reality is we haven’t—up to now—published any science fiction or speculative fiction. That doesn’t mean we won’t, if the right project comes along.

When it says “authentically,” should we take that to team that you’re exclusively looking for book creators personally raised in the U.S. Hispanic culture or are you also open to folks writing/illustrating cross-culturally?

Again, never say never, but in general, our mission is to provide publishing opportunities to Latino authors. We have, over the years, published a handful of books that were not written by Latinos.

Specifically, we published two biographies about Latino baseball players that weren’t written by Hispanic authors: The Orlando Cepeda Story and The Tall Mexican: The Life of Hank Aguirre, All-Star Pitcher, Businessman, Humanitarian.

Do you accept unagented work?

Definitely! Most of our authors don’t have agents.

What recommendations do you have for children’s-YA book creators in the submissions process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

I think all authors who want to see their works published need to be careful to submit their manuscripts to houses that publish similar material. It’s frustrating to receive thousands of submissions each year that don’t fit the parameters of our publishing program. Those authors are wasting their time and money (printing of manuscript, postage to mail it, etc.) and our time as well.

So my recommendation is to always do your research. Make sure you’re submitting appropriately. Follow the publisher’s submission guidelines.

For instance, the guidelines on our website clearly state that all manuscripts should be submitted online, but we still receive tons of manuscripts in the mail. Which is fine; we will certainly review the manuscripts that we receive in the mailbox. But it’s definitely cheaper, easier, and more efficient for author and publisher if manuscripts are submitted online per our guidelines.

Are there any special considerations in submitting a bilingual book?

It’s great to work with authors that are able to translate / provide both English and Spanish versions of their text. Most of the writers we work with aren’t that bilingual, so they submit their story in one language, and then we work with a team of translators to provide the second language.

There’s been a lot of discussion of late about the current state and future of the picture book. What do you think?

I don’t think picture books, or any kind of books for that matter, are going away. Books’ formats are definitely evolving, and a lot of people are adding digital books to their reading experience.

I admit to reading on devices (both a Kindle and an iTouch), but I also read physical books and I listen to audio books in the car. I’m enjoying books and reading in as many ways as I can, and none of these formats is exclusive of the other.

If I’m traveling by plane, I prefer to carry one physical book and several digital books. It lightens my load. If I’m traveling by car, I like to have several audio books on hand and a physical book or two as well.

I think parents with the economic means to add digital books to their kids’ reading mix will do so. The kids we can’t forget about are those who don’t have access to Kindles, Nooks, iPhones, iTouches, etc.