Throwback Thursday: Lupe Ruiz-Flores on Writing From the Heart & Lupita’s Papalote

Congratulations to Lupe Ruiz-Flores on her new picture book, Piece by Piece: Ernestine’s Gift for President Roosevelt, illustrated by Anna López Real (Millbrook, Sept. 5, 2023). From the promotional copy:

During the Great Depression, Ernestine Guerrero’s family didn’t have much. The Mexican American teen was so grateful for the government food aid they received in San Antonio, Texas, that she wanted to personally thank President Roosevelt. But how? After seeing the plans for a very difficult woodworking project, she decided she would make it herself and send it to the president. Piece by piece, that’s exactly what she did. And the clock case she built remains on display in the Roosevelt Presidential Library to this day. …this picture book tells the inspiring true story of a girl who proved that if you look closely, treasure can be found in unexpected places.

Take a look back at Lupe’s 2005 interview with Cynthia about her very first picture book.

Author Interview: Lupe Ruiz-Flores on Lupita’s Papalote

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Lupita’s Papalote/El papalote de Lupita by Lupe Ruiz-Flores, illustrated by Pauline Rodriguez Howard, Spanish translation by Gabriela Baeza Ventura (Arte Publico, 2002)(a bilingual picture book). Condensed from the catalog copy: Lupita sits on the wooden steps of her house and stares into the sky. Lupita cannot tear her eyes away from the colorful papalotes, or kites. Lupita yearns for one of her own. But the family needs to save all of its money for school supplies and other must-haves. The kite remains in Lupita’s mind until, with the help of her father, Lupita hatches a plan to make her very own.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

My father. When I was a little girl of about five, we really couldn’t afford to buy a fancy kite like some kids (not many) in the barrio where I grew up. I remember my father comforting me and telling me that we would make our own kite just like he used to when he was a little boy. Together we made it out of comics, old colorful rags, and bamboo sticks from the vacant yard next door. Then he taught me how to fly it. I remember the thrill of the kite pulling and tugging and the fear I felt at the force of the kite as it kept going higher and higher.

But what I remember most was a gesture that stayed with me to this day. When I was the most afraid of being swept up into the sky by the kite, my father who was standing behind me, must have sensed my anxiety because he placed his hand on my shoulder. As soon as I felt the warmth of his touch, the fear oozed out of me through my feet and I knew I was safe. The love that the human touch brings is powerful. I wanted that to be in my story.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The spark came in 1996 when I wrote a very rough first draft with the idea and filed it away for about three years. I was busy with career and family and didn’t know if I could even write something that someone would like. Once I retired from my career as an engineering technician, I really thought about pursuing writing. Since my background was all technical (Masters in Computer Information Management), I entered writing contests just to test the waters. I got my rejections but I also started winning some, i.e., subscriptions to magazines, a ton of deck supplies when I entered a Thompson Deck contest, and finally when I won a writing contest for Guideposts magazine, that gave me the self confidence I needed to continue.

In the summer of 1999, I revised the draft. I had no idea where or how to send it out. I read about a writing seminar being offered at one of our local universities. It was a one-day workshop and that was my initiation into the world of writers and publishing. One of the speakers, who turned out to be one of my closest friends, suggested to the audience that a certain publisher was looking for bilingual stories. I perked up. That was me. That was October 1999. I immediately mailed my manuscript out and by January 2000, I had a contract. Unbelievable! The book came out in October 2002.

I thought it was going to be easy from then on but it hasn’t been. I’ve had my share of rejections since then. Although now, I’m happy to announce, I just signed my second contract for another bilingual picture book tentatively titled, “The Woodcutter’s Gift.” Since then, I’ve attended as many writers’ workshops and conferences as I can. I’m immersing myself in the writing process. I have years to catch up on. This summer I attended the Highlights Foundation Workshop in Chautauqua, New York, and the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles. I cannot tell you what an experience both were.

Published by Arte Publico Press, 2007

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

With Lupita’s Papalote, there really wasn’t any research because I wrote it from the heart. I embellished it, of course, because the story becomes a fantasy for the little girl. I think bringing the book to life gave me a real sense of accomplishment when my entire family of 10 brothers and sisters, plus nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles, my son, daughters, grandchildren(total close to 100 friends and relatives who showed up for my book signing) were there. The characters in my story were named after my real brothers and sisters. My sisters cried when they heard the inspiration for the story because they remembered. (My father died in 1980). Logistically, it wasn’t hard to bring the book to life because the illustrator lives in the same city I do and the publisher is only three hours away. I lucked out!

How has the book been received?

Very well. As of July, it has gone into its second printing and is on the Accelerated Reader list. I am presently working on a middle grade novel which does entail tons of research.

Cynsations Notes

Lupe Ruiz-Flores is the author of six bilingual picture books. She is a former Regional Advisor for the Southwest Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and until recently its newsletter editor. Lupe has won the SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant, the SCBWI/Amazon Work-in-Progress Grant, and the SCBWI Martha Weston Award. She is a member of the Writers League of Texas, Texas Library Association, Las Musas, and Kindling Words.

She was awarded the Tejas Star Book Award for three consecutive years. Her poetry and short stories have been published in anthologies, including Thanku: Poems of Gratitude. She was recently inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a best-selling, award-winning children’s-YA writer, writing teacher, a NSK Neustadt Laureate, and the author-curator of the Native-centered Heartdrum imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Her 2023 release is the YA novel Harvest House, an Indigenous ghost mystery. Cynthia’s recent releases include her middle grade anthology Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories For Kids and her middle grade novel Sisters of the Neversea.

Ancestor Approved received four starred reviews and is the winner of the Reading the West Young Readers Book Award, a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection, an ALA Children’s Notable Book and a Kids Indie Next List Pick. It also was named to the ILA, Kirkus Reviews, Chicago Public Library, NY Public Library, Shelf Awareness, and Bank Street Best Books of 2021 lists.

Sisters of the Neversea received six starred reviews and was named to summer reading lists by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. It also was named to the Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Chicago Public Library, American Indians in Children’s Literature; Politics & Prose, and Parents Magazine Best Books of 2021 lists.

She looks forward to the release of Mission One: The Vice Principal Problem (Blue Stars #1), co-authored by Kekla Magoon, illustrated by Molly Murakami (Candlewick, 2024), which is a Junior Library Guild selection.

Her debut picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, is widely considered a modern classic. Her debut tween novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name was named one of the 30 Most Influential Children’s Books of All Time by Book Riot, which in addition listed her among 10 Must-Read Native American Authors. She also was named Writer of the Year by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers for Rain Is Not My Indian Name and won the American Indian Youth Literature Award for Young Adult Books for Hearts Unbroken, which also was named to YALSA’s Amelia Bloomer list and received the Foreword Reviews Silver Medal in Young Adult Fiction. In addition, Cynthia is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestselling YA author of the Tantalize series and Feral trilogy.

Cynthia lives in Austin, Texas, and is a citizen of the Muscogee Nation. The Austin chapter of SCBWI has instituted the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award in her honor, and Cynthia is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. She also serves on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, where she was named the inaugural Katherine Paterson Endowed Chair. In addition, Cynthia coordinates and leads the annual We Need Diverse Books Native Writing Intensive.

Cynthia holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas, Lawrence and a J.D. from The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. She studied law abroad at Paris-Sorbonne University.