New Voices: Alda P. Dobbs & Debbie Zapata Create Books Inspired by Family

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Spotlight image: Debbie Zapata reads Up and Adam, illustrated by Yong Ling Kang (Kids Can Press, 2022) with the assistance of an American Sign Language Interpreter for a group at an Austin park.

Today we welcome two Texas authors to Cynsations to share their path to publication for books inspired by their own families. Alda P. Dobbs‘ debut novel, The Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna (Sourcebooks, 2021) was selected as a Pura Belpré Honor Book and is a current Texas Bluebonnet selection.

School Library Journal called Debbie Zapata’s debut picture book, Up and Adam, “A great example of a story that will inspire all kids to work with others in an amiable way, making its points sweetly and simply.”

Alda P. Dobbs

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

My background is in physics and engineering; however, I’ve always had a passion for family stories. It wasn’t until 12 years ago that my husband urged me to give writing a shot, since it’d been a childhood dream. Despite my life-long doubts and lack of confidence in the English language, my second tongue, I took the plunge. I began reading all the books on the craft I could get my hands on. I attended conferences, workshops, and retreats and subscribed to Writer’s Digest and Children’s Book Insider. I read and reread many children’s books, analyzing each scene, paragraph, and sentence. I got myself a trusted reader, my husband, and lucky for me, he’s a retired US Army colonel who doesn’t sugar coat anything!

After becoming a member of SCBWI, I took my manuscripts to conferences for critiques by professionals. Those critiques were pivotal in my career because I learned how to shape my manuscript. When improvement followed, I entered contests, and when I began winning mentorship opportunities and scholarships, I knew I was getting closer. I began researching agents and made it a point to meet the ones I admired at conferences. After my manuscript was complete, I resorted to a friend who’d volunteered to be my beta reader, and once I got her approval, I submitted to the agent I’d been in touch with. We signed a contract within a month!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Both Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna (Sourcebooks, 2021) and The Other Side of the River (Sourcebooks, 2022) were inspired by a family story from 1913 that had been passed down three generations.

For years, Alda had heard family stories about the Mexican Revolution.

After two years of research, I discovered that the family story I’d been hearing for years was indeed true. It was such a powerful story, I thought it was something that needed to be shared with young readers.

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

I had to retrain myself on how I approached research. Having a science background, my way of researching things proved inefficient when it came to historical research.

Also, the feedback I often got during critiques was that my writing didn’t contain enough emotion. I think this was due to of my training in science and analytical thinking. I had to go back and reread beautiful works by masters like Avi and Lois Lowry to see how they weaved emotion into their stories.

Alda sometimes writes in her treehouse.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

My favorites were Crispin by Avi (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2003), Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (Clarion Books, 1989), and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press, 2008). Avi’s book follows Crispin, a character whose life very much resembles Petra’s despite taking place in a totally different geographical place and era. Lowry’s book touches the subject of war masterfully, and Collin’s book is amazing at keeping you at the edge of your seat page after page.

Alda’s indoor writing spot.

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

I attribute much of my publishing success to the close-knit writing community I’m part of. As a military family, we often moved, but in every place we’ve lived, I’ve connected with writers and have made everlasting friendships. I’ve received much guidance, mentorship, and fellowship from the kid lit community and it’s always an honor to be able to pay it forward.

Debbie Zapata

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

When I wrote my idea for a picture book debut, Up and Adam, as a student-of-the-week project for my son, I needed help to develop the story into an actual picture book. Austin has a phenomenal writing community. So, I signed up for in-person classes through The Writers’ League of Texas and The Writing Barn. I also joined SCBWI and attended Austin’s regional monthly meetings.

I took picture book classes at The Writing Barn to learn about story structure, character arc, and pacing. l studied with amazing teachers including Carmen Oliver, Cate Berry, Donna Janell Bowman, and Cynthia Levinson. I took several six week classes that included workshopping our stories. Each round of feedback, I revised Up and Adam making it stronger.

I was fortunate that Bethany Hegedus, founder and creative director of The Writing Barn, invited me to join the pilot of Write.Submit.Support (WSS). It provided an opportunity to explore what living a literary life means to me. I discovered it is the joy of the work.

I also attended local and national SCBWI conferences and several Writing Barn picture book intensives. I learned from top agents and editors. At one, I met author Julie Hedlund, Founder of the 12 x 12 Picture Book Writing Challenge, and I have been a member of 12 x 12 ever since.

I continued to learn and wrote other picture book manuscripts. My efforts helped me to grow as a writer. Two years later, I signed with my agent.

Debbie reading at The Writing Barn.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

When my husband and I had our first child, the doctors told us that our baby had Down syndrome. My parents flew from Texas to New York City to meet Adam. Like us, they fell in love with him. Even as a baby, his open-hearted and infectious smile brightened our days. My parents instinctively knew he would carry that light into the world.

My dad would say, “Up and at ‘em, Adam!” It soon caught on as a catchphrase that inspired a story. My mom suggested that the character Adam could have a dog named Up as his sidekick. I now had a title and the main characters. When Hurricane Sandy struck New York City, it reminded me how resilient New Yorkers are in times of need. More of the story started to come to me as I imagined the fictional town of Portville akin to Coney Island.

Up and Adam is my debut picture book with the talented illustrator Yong Ling Kang. The book is a story about Adam, a young boy with Down syndrome who helps his neighbors in the aftermath of a storm in a way only he can. Adam and his dog, Up, do what they can to pitch in with the cleanup. But it turns out, Adam’s most important contribution to his community is one he doesn’t even think about — his smile. Because when anyone sees Adam smile, they smile, too.

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

My first challenge was the difficult subject of flooding caused by climate change. I didn’t want to show the actual storm. I wanted to highlight a community working together to get through something tough.

Coney Island Boardwalk

My second challenge was to create a fictional town inspired by a real place and community. I took a research trip to NYC. I visited Coney Island and stood on the boardwalk and pictured Portville. I love the way Yong Ling Kang illustrated Up and Adam standing at the boardwalk waiting for people to come by. There is a stark contrast between a bustling Coney Island and Portville after a storm.

Interior illustration from Up and Adam by Yong Ling Kang, used with permission.

My next challenge was to create an accurate representation of a boy with an intellectual disability that focused on what he can do. I didn’t want a ton of art notes. So, I used both dialogue and actions to show how Up and Adam reach out to help others. I also show that his community accepts and loves him as he is. My publisher was committed to making the story accessible and inclusive. Only about 3% of children’s picture books include a prominent character with a disability. Designing the book for readers of all ages and abilities was important to us. I appreciate that my local indie Book People chose to shelve Up and Adam in the section called ‘Being Me.’

Some readers feel that this story is helpful as we emerge from isolation during the pandemic. With the pandemic, everyone has gone through something tough. I hope the book inspires children to see how everyone can make a difference in their community.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

I enjoy reading picture books that have heart and humor. I also like books that help children understand themselves and the world around them. Two of my favorite picture books were useful as mentor text for Up and Adam.

Author Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Penguin Young Readers Group, 2015) is a story about celebrating your community. It is also an ode to kindness, empathy, and finding joy in unexpected places. I love the gentle twist at the end that lets the readers in on a secret about the main character CJ and his grandmother. I found it helpful as a model book because the main character is out and about. Each scene moves the protagonist forward until the moment he does a small act with a big impact.

Author and illustrator Jessixa Bagley’s Boats for Papa (Roaring Brook Press, 2015) has a coastal world where Buckley and his Mama live. It’s a heart-felt picture book about sadness and resilience. I found it helpful as a model book because the main character is living through a challenging time. The protagonist likes to make things with his hands and the reader experiences it through his actions.

Up and Adam includes a coastal town. Adam likes to visit favorite places in his community. He spreads joy through his kindness. Seeing my work in print has been thrilling. I believe in a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

When I joined WSS, I was clueless about how to query agents and submit to editors. I needed help with this critical step to share my stories with children. WSS offered structure and support with the roller coaster ride of submissions. This also included submitting to mentorships programs and writing scholarships. We discussed passes that came in and submission requests.

I am grateful for classmates who shared knowledge from their submission experiences. I was open to trying anything. I queried agents, entered contests, participated in twitter pitch parties, attended conferences, and submitted to editors. It paid off!

My agent, James McGowan of BookEnds Literary, and I first connected via #PitMad, a twitter pitch party. James requested to see Up and Adam, then more of my work, and soon scheduled a phone call. On our call, he offered representation. I knew that I was in good hands with James and BookEnds. A few weeks later, Up and Adam went out on submission. A few months later, Kids Can Press acquired the story. The book, Up and Adam is designed for readers of all ages and abilities. It is a story about inclusivity and community. The best part of it being out in the world, is that I get to meet readers at inclusive storytime events and school visits. Kids Can Press made a wonderful activity kit. A curriculum guide is coming soon.

Cynsational Notes

Alda P. Dobbs is the author of the historical novels Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna and its followup, The Other Side of the River (September 2022). Her debut novel received a Pura Belpre Honor and is a Texas Bluebonnet Master List selection.

Alda was born in a small town in northern Mexico but moved to San Antonio, Texas as a child. She studied physics and worked as an engineer before pursuing her love of storytelling. She’s as passionate about connecting children to their past, their communities, different cultures and nature as she is about writing. Alda lives with her husband and two children outside Houston, Texas.

Debbie Zapata is the author of Up and Adam. She grew up in a multicultural family in Austin, Texas. She loves creating stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Debbie believes each of us has the ability to make the world a better place.

Debbie has a MA in Middle Eastern Studies from The University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Social Work (MSW) from New York University. She works as a therapist helping families who have children with disabilities. Debbie is a member of SCBWI and she is represented by James McGowan of BookEnds Literary.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. Now she focuses her energy on inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.