New Voices: Tziporah Cohen & Donna Barba Higuera on Writing Their Own Experiences

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

I’m so excited to welcome debut middle-grade authors Tziporah Cohen and Donna Barba Higuera to Cynsations today. Both authors share with us the joys and challenges of writing to their own experiences.

Congratulations on your debuts!

Tziporah Cohen

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I sort of fell into it, to be honest. Many, many years ago I heard a story that I thought would make a good picture book. Never having written any fiction before, let alone a picture book, I took an Adult Ed course in picture book writing sponsored by my town, which led to another Adult Ed course, which led a few years later to taking online writing courses at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and

My instructor there encouraged me to look at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Picture Book Intensive semester. I was accepted, and then decided to stay for the two-year MFA.

And now, here I am! So there wasn’t an initial intention on my part to write for young people but more of an exploration of my creative side that then found its home in kidlit. And the kidlit community is inspirational in and of itself.

People who write for children are so kind and welcoming and fun, and I love being part of this world.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

This was a long process for me, as I did not study creative writing in university or do any creative writing in my career as a physician, though I did do a fair bit of medical writing—book chapters, scientific papers, that kind of thing.

I can look back at the picture book manuscripts I wrote in those early years and see some progress as I took those online courses, but what took them (and future manuscripts) to a publishable level was the work I did for my MFA and after.

And while learning craft was a large part of that, what I think really made the difference is the time spent writing, writing, writing (and reading, reading reading) and being critiqued and critiquing others. It’s like learning a second language: You can spend hours in the classroom learning vocabulary and grammar, but you only get fluent by getting out there and speaking.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

I don’t think anything beats opening the email from Semarehl Al-Hillal, Groundwood’s publisher, expecting a standard rejection, and reading the words “I loved it!” and “We would be very happy to publish No Vacancy (Groundwood, 2020) and I wanted to check if you’d be pleased with us as the publishing home for your book.” Umm…yes!

Other great moments were finding out the book had been chosen as a Junior Library Guild Selection and receiving the first copies in the mail. Because of the pandemic, the physical advanced reader copies never made it out of Groundwood’s office, so I didn’t get to hold the book in my hand until about a month before publication.

There really haven’t been any terrible moments. Despite the challenges of being a debut author during a pandemic, with various events, appearances and conferences cancelled, I still feel so grateful to have gotten to this point, especially as I acknowledge the struggles and suffering happening in the world right now.

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

Take writing courses, join the SCBWI, read all the time and write, write, write! The stuff you write in the beginning won’t be good, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s your starting point, not your end point.

I’m a physician who didn’t write a word of fiction (outside of grade school assignments) until my mid-thirties. I took that first Adult Ed course over fifteen years ago. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t be a writer if you start late or don’t do it full-time. (I had someone tell me that!)

I wish I knew who said it first, but I’ve heard the quote, “The only difference between writers who get published and those who don’t are the ones who do never gave up.”

I viewed every rejection as a step towards the end goal.

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

There aren’t a lot of novels for kids with overtly Jewish main characters, and many of the ones out there are Holocaust stories. (Which are extremely important, but don’t provide mirror opportunities for today’s Jewish children to see themselves in books, nor window opportunities for non-Jewish children to gain insight into the contemporary Jewish experience.)

Add to that the myriad of ways that one can be Jewish today. I wanted my characters to illustrate that variety. Because I’ve grown up and lived in a variety of Jewish communities, I could show the beauty of this diversity from the inside. I hope readers will be able to say, “Oh, my family does that!” or “My uncle is just like Miriam’s uncle” or even, “I didn’t know that about Judaism.”

Donna Barba Higuera

What was your initial inspiration for writing Lupe Wong Won’t Dance?

I had just finished writing a pretty dark YA novel. I was searching for something new to write. I gravitate toward writing fantasy/sci-fi/creepy paranormal, etc. I have a composition book of ideas for novels. I read through it hoping one of those random ideas would call to me. None did.

Enter an after-school dinner convo. My daughter, who was in the sixth grade at the time, was upset because she’d discovered she was going to have to square dance in P.E. that day. She announced, “But I’m just going to dance with Gracie. At least she and I will have fun together.”

Her older sister, the epitome of support, laughed in her face, “You can’t dance with Gracie. You have to dance with a boy. Aaaaand, you have to dance with whoever asks you.”

My younger daughter felt betrayed. Betrayed that no one, including her older sister, told her about this middle school horror. Betrayed that at such an awkward age, she was going to have to dance with a boy. Betrayed that this “tradition” of saying yes to a boy who asked was being forced on her.

This conversation sparked something in me. I felt like she had when I was that age.

This entire situation was complicated! It was funny. It was frustrating. It was unfair.

A character plopped down at the dinner table and started blurting out how she’d handle things if we didn’t. Lupe Wong. She was a mix of myself, my older daughter, and of course my younger daughter. But Lupe was not afraid or intimidated to say the things we were afraid to say.

I went to my room after dinner and wrote the first chapter. I loved Lupe. I loved her world. It felt right to hang out there for a while and let Lupe finish saying all she needed to say.

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

Square dancing. It’s universally loved for the most part. Sure, some hated actually dancing. But most adults you’ll ask had to square dance at some point if they grew up in the U.S.

I’ve had a few say, “This doesn’t happen anymore. Certainly not at my school.”

I say, “Oh, yes it does!” Go ask. I guarantee you will find a school in your town, or nearby that still has square dancing as part of the curriculum. It’s still the official state dance in 48 states.

In all the people I’ve asked, I’ve yet to find a middle ground. People either loved it, or hated it.

But in doing the research, I also found some of its racist roots in regard to the music. This research changed the book in a huge way. Once I read about some of the racist lyrics in the roots of square dancing, I couldn’t ignore it. The main character, Lupe Wong, definitely wouldn’t ignore it.

Doing basic research on common square dancing songs, I came across an NPR article discussing the racist roots of the ice cream song. I knew Lupe, would’ve come across the same article. If I was left with such a huge pit in my stomach, how would Lupe have felt?

How could something I found doing a quick Google search, be unknown to so many? Or maybe people do know, and it’s one of those inconvenient truths that we just ignore because we’ve been doing it for so long.

Anyhow, these revelations had to be included in the book. And because the character Lupe is just the type to do research, she had to be the one to discover it. It was a challenging and difficult topic to put in writing, but Lupe is a strong girl. And while she has her faults, she doesn’t ignore a tough truth that has been overlooked and ignored for a very long time.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

Donna’s critique group

A universal comment I get from nearly every person who reads Lupe Wong Won’t Dance (Levine Querido, 2020) is how strong Lupe’s voice is.

Well, Lupe was not originally the main character.

After reading aloud the first chapter of my first draft at my weekly critique group, my critique partners were nearly all staring at me, someone asked, “Ummh, what are you doing?”

“What do you mean?” I answered.

“Why on Earth isn’t Lupe the main character?”

Thank God for critique partners!

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

This is such an interesting question as Lupe’s “diverse experience” is just “experience” to me. I am biracial (Mexican-American/White) and my kids are even more “diverse” (half Chinese), but it’s just experience to us. A great example of this is a scene in the book where another student makes a racist comment to Lupe. One of my critique partners commented that this interaction was jarring.

I just didn’t get it. It was something that had actually happened to me in middle school, and I’m sure a lot of others like me. It wasn’t so unusual, so it came out naturally while writing, and I hadn’t thought it was at all out of the ordinary or “jarring.”

But my critique partner’s comment stuck with me. Would readers find it unbelievable? I debated removing it.

I promise, these comments really happen to some of us. And they happen all the time. So, I decided it needed to stay. It was authentic to me, and I’m sure a lot of kids still.

While I can’t write to all experiences, I can write to my own. As writers, we bring pieces of ourselves into our writing all the time. We do this sometimes without realizing we’re even doing it. So, while my experiences aren’t like each person with the same racial background as me, all of our differing perspectives are important.

No matter what this may be, we all have something unique to contribute in our individual life experiences.

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?

I’m really not doing much in that realm besides trying to connect with teachers and librarians. But I inevitably get side-tracked with my new friends talking books. I really don’t think people care much about what I look like, or what my “image” is. The place I connect most with people is talking to them about what they love to read and why? It fascinates me.

I’m far more concerned with what I’m going to write next than promoting myself or my image.

But, in this current age of virtual conferences, I am connecting with people I might never have met. I suppose that is a form of promotion, but it doesn’t feel that way. I just get to hang out with writers and teachers and librarians and chat about kidlit.

Cynsational Notes

Tziporah Cohen was born and raised in New York, then spent eighteen years in Boston before landing in Toronto, where she lives with her husband, three kids, two cats, and one dog. She studied French and Theater Arts at Cornell University and went on to get an MD from Harvard Medical School.

Twenty years later, she graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Tziporah now splits her time between working as a psychiatrist in oncology/palliative care and writing, interspersed with mom duties, indoor rock climbing and dog walking. Her debut novel, No Vacancy (Groundwood Books, 2020), for middle grade readers, was published in September 2020 by Groundwood Books.

Donna Barba Higuera grew up in a tiny desert town in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. Rather than wrangling dust devils, she’d spend recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling the library’s dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted pioneers’ cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstone for inspiration.

Donna’s middle grade and picture books reinvent history, folklore, and or her own life experience into compelling storylines. She still dreams in Spanglish. Donna lives in Washington State with her husband Mark, four kids, three dogs and two one frogs.

She is represented by Allison Remcheck at Stimola Literary Studio. Donna’s debut, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance (Levine Querido, 2020), a Middle Grade contemporary, was one of Arthur A. Levine’s new imprint, Levine Querido’s, launch books, released September 8, 2020. Her Mexican boogeyman picture book, El Cucuy is Scared, Too!, illustrated by Juliana Perdomo (Abrams Kids, 2021) will be released Spring 2021 with Abrams Kids. Her middle grade sci-fi, The Last Cuentista (Levine Querido, 2021) will be released by Levine Querido in Fall 2021.

An educational guide is available from Levine Querido for Lupe Wong Won’t Dance.

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.