New Voices: Ernesto Cisneros & Ash Van Otterloo on Being True to Themselves & Their Roots

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Welcome to Ernesto Cisneros and Ash Van Otterloo! These two middle-grade debut authors will share with us the inspiration and challenge of staying true to their roots while writing for a young audience.

Ernesto Cisneros

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Efrén Divided (Quill Tree Books, 2020) was born during the last 2016 presidential elections, when hate speech was handed a national platform. What had always been an underlying bias against the Latino community began to feel like an all-out attack.

I knew that I needed to do something to help change the narrative created about us. I wanted my children and my students alike to feel proud of their heritage.

It was also during the same year that three of my students had a parent deported. Their strength and resilience were inspiring. I felt obligated to speak up and help raise awareness of their plight.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

By default, I’m not one to seek out or enjoy limelight. However, after a long discussion with my amazing friend and agent, Deborah Warren, I have come to realize that my feelings or comfort level are secondary. Efrén Divided has become a platform by which I can help raise awareness and sympathy to the plight and struggles of immigrant families today.

Due to the pandemic, I haven’t really had the opportunity to experience the author life. In fact, I’ve only seen my book on bookstore shelves via photos from friends and supporters.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?

Just like the main character, Efrén, I have family on both sides of the border. Like him, I struggle to accept why I—and not other family members—was blessed with the fortune (and obvious benefits) of being born a U.S. citizen. Everything in the book comes from either my experiences or those very close to me.

One of my goals while writing the book was for kids living in Santa Ana that need to see themselves in the pages of books so that they can feel a sense of pride, a sense that who they are and where they come from matters… and to know that they belong center stage, not on the margins.

Ernesto’s parents

As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another?

I find it kind of amusing whenever people ask me if I plan on leaving the teaching profession, you know, now that I’m published. The thing they don’t understand is that teaching allows me the rare opportunity of witnessing middle school angst unfold before my eyes. My students gift me an endless well of ideas and characters to choose from.

On the flip side, writing allows me to connect with students in a way that teaching alone could never do. Teaching and writing together provide me the perfect symbiotic relationship in which I learn and gain as much as my students—if not more.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Writing for this age group felt natural considering that I’ve been teaching this age group for over twenty years now.

Over the years, I’ve honed my humor and teaching methodology to the middle-grade mindset. It’s pretty much the only explanation I have for some of the fart jokes you’ll find in my work.

At least, that’s my story… and I’m sticking to it.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s writers?

Keep at it. Do not give up! The world deserves to hear your story. It took me well over 14 years of trying before my publication dream came true. So be true to who you are… and always write from the heart.

Ash Van Otterloo

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

In writing Cattywampus (Scholastic, 2020), getting the regional vernacular and a sense of humor true to life was important to me, because I believe it’s imperative to normalize many acceptable versions of American English!

However, writing dialect takes balance—you want to communicate the flavor, but also not make it so accurate and heavy that you exhaust the readers’ eyes. So, that took some finagling.

Another goal of mine was to present a magic system that rang true and unique to the region without appropriating healing traditions that belong to Native or Black cultures within Appalachia. Much of my research on existing Appalachian “granny magic” practices proved it draws heavily on both.

So, the magic practices in the story were largely inspired by Celtic and Welsh lore (my own distant roots), while the hexes and spells have a pragmatic, down-to-earth quality.

Growing up, the people around me were diverse and resourceful, using whatever they had on hand to construct solutions to problems, often with ample ingenuity, lots of recycling, and not a lick of pretension.

It made sense that the spells of the magical families from my imaginary hollow (pronounced ‘holler’) would reflect a similar quality. They interact intimately with the wildlife around them, in a language that’s both clever and casual, and in sing-song rhymes easy to pass down through generations.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

I’m southern, nonbinary, and queer. Growing up, there weren’t many people within my sphere that I could look up to or model my hopes after, and certainly none that I was aware of in children’s fiction. I cobbled together an internal identity from elements of characters I related to somewhat—Gilbert Blythe and Anne Shirley, Jo March, Howl and Sophie.

But it was still confusing sometimes, well into my twenties, feeling as if I had to invent a path for myself from scratch. Stories, after all, are how we imagine ourselves succeeding.

Hopefully, authors like myself—showing up and writing the stories and characters of our hearts as skillfully as possible—will provide a stable, empathetic presence for younger people who are trying to find their place in their world and community.

Besides that, whenever any of us expand our worldview to include the varied, magnificent experiences of those different from us, we grow.

We become more compassionate and innovative people, with a greater capacity for both love and reason. 

What were the most striking ways your life changed after you transitioned to published author?

I’m a work-at-home parent who also writes, so the notion that my life would grow even busier as an author seemed impossible and almost laughable, pre-debut. (Oh, my sweet summer child…)

Of course, I’ve since learned that my schedule could absolutely grow tighter with the addition of events, interviews, and panels. These are wonderful opportunities to carve out space for; I believe in the heart of my story, and any chance I get to broaden its reach in the world is a gift!

But yes, it’s hectic sometimes.

The press for time has forced me to get crystal clear on effective self-care, and to be honest with myself about any habits or energy-drains that don’t contribute to my making space exist as a genuine, whole person.

At some point, you decide how you want to show up in the world, then remind yourself that saying “no” to some things means saying “yes” to your sense of purpose. The process has been experimental, with me tweaking the system plenty as I go.

This, of course, sometimes looks like utter chaos to the casual observer. But sometimes, a really clean van or living room just isn’t a priority that week.

Ash balancing research and-parent-life on the ferry

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Learn to differentiate between people who don’t understand your vision and those offering constructive feedback! It’s a given that you won’t be for everyone. That’s okay.

But you’ll also meet people—fellow writers, mentors, and agents—along the way who ask questions, poke holes in your worldbuilding, make open-ended suggestions, and challenge you to revise, revise, revise. These people won’t say, “Why are you writing this?” They’ll say, “I see what you’re building here, and I’m excited. I wonder if this was the best way to communicate it?”

Goal-setting exercise at a writers retreat where Ash met-several critique partners

These people are your champions. Be kind to them. Practice gratitude. They want to see you succeed, and it’s important to cultivate both judicious ownership of your work and a lack of defensiveness when it comes to honest feedback.

We can’t see our own blind spots, which makes a passionate critique worth its weight in gold—it’s something all the do-it-yourself elbow grease in the world can’t manifest. Accepting it takes vulnerability.

Cysantional Notes

Ernesto Cisneros was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, where he still teaches.  He holds an English degree from the University of California, Irvine; a teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach; as well as a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from National University.

As an author, he believes in providing today’s youth with an honest depiction of characters with whom they can identify.  The real world is filled with amazing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. His work strives to reflect that.  Efrén Divided (Quill Tree Books, 2020) is his first book. You can visit him online at

Ash Van Otterloo was born and raised in the Appalachian foothills, and lived for seventeen years in Eastern Tennessee.

They currently live in the Pacific Northwest  with their best friend and four wild forest-children. They are the author of Cattywampus (Scholastic, 2020) and A Touch Of Ruckus (Scholastic, 2021).

Ash is regarded fondly by two cattle dogs, two cats, and a ball python named Sophie Hatter. Whether or not they’re a witch is a topic for gossip among their neighbors. The ones, at least, that they’ve not yet turned into newts.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.