“Holding Space” for Authentic Stories: An Interview with Author Anika Aldamuy Denise

By: | 12/09/2020
Categories: Instruction, Leadership

Children’s book author Anika Aldamuy Denise is many things: a native New Yorker (Queens), a storyteller, a Latinx activist, a parent, a trailblazer (according to no less than PBS), and an advocate for educators. She’s also (we’re incredibly proud to say) a passage writer for Curriculum Associates’ new reading program, Magnetic Reading (coming soon), and Teacher Toolbox, a collection of digital instruction resources.

Anika has written 10 picture books. Her fiction features “BIG” personalities, and her nonfiction titles illuminate the lives of important Latinx figures. Her biography of New York City’s first Puerto Rican librarian, Pura Belpré, garnered numerous awards and was recognized by the American Library Association as a 2020 Pura Belpré Award honor book. Anika’s newest title, A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor! Singer! Dancer! Trailblazer!, celebrates the life of Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno.

Given how busy she’s been, it’s extraordinary that Anika has been able to contribute stories and her creativity to our programs. I almost (almost) find it impossible to believe that Anika took time away from her three children, husband, orange tabby named Charlie, and writing to speak with us about her work, “showing up” for educators, and diverse, equitable, and authentic education materials.


Curriculum Associates is stepping up and “strengthening the ways in which our programs reflect and engage with a variety of cultural backgrounds and ultimately deliver equitable learning experiences for all students.” As part of this commitment, we’re creating a lot of new reading passages and stories for our ELA/reading programs. Can you tell us about the work you’ve done for us and how it fits into your activism and support for Latinx authors? (Doozy of a question, I know.)

Photo of author Anika DeniseMy very first passage for Curriculum Associates was an article about Pura Belpré, an author, a storyteller, and the first Puerto Rican librarian to work at the New York Public Library.

As her picture book biographer, I have studied Belpré’s life and career extensively. Each time I write about her I have a new appreciation for her legacy, and I’m reminded that the garden of Latinx stories she planted requires tending by all of us. Publishers provide the fertile soil, authors plant the seeds, educators nurture the stories so they grow and flourish, and readers reap the harvest. Curriculum Associates is “stepping up,” like you said, by holding space for Latinx writers who bring authentic, own-voice perspectives to education passages.

When I think of the textbooks and storybooks I grew up with—which were almost always written for and from a white, middle-class perspective—it makes me especially grateful to be part of creating passages that more equitably reflect students' lives, backgrounds, languages, families, and cultures. Together, we are tending the garden.

You’ve written 10 picture books. (Wow!) Why did you decide to become a writer for young readers?

Yes, my book career hit "double digits” as my kids would say. The funny thing is, I never planned to be a children’s author. I started out in film school and meandered my way into advertising and copywriting. But my husband is a children’s book illustrator, so for years, I had a view of children’s book publishing from the passenger seat. I finally decided to take the wheel and try writing a picture book. Once I did, I realized that this was the road I was always supposed to be on.

I love writing for young readers! And I love writing for the young reader I once was—giving her the stories she wished she had.

Congratulations on the publication of your latest picture book, A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor! Singer! Dancer! Trailblazer! What drew you to actress Rita Moreno’s story, and why did you, in turn, want to share her story with young readers?

Book cover for A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno: Actor! Singer! Dancer! Trailblazer!Thank you! Rita Moreno's story has everything: hardship, heartache, perseverance, triumph. She’s an icon who’s been a role model to many—especially young people of color who yearned to see themselves in media and entertainment at a time when their representation perpetuated harmful stereotypes or was lacking altogether. I think there’s a lot young readers can take from her story: Puerto Rican kids will be proud of one of their own, children from immigrant families may see echoes of their experiences in hers, and for all kids, her story demonstrates how far grit, grace, and service can take you.


I will always show up for teachers, particularly those in public education who are facing enormous obstacles right now.
— Anika Denise

 
Reading your website, it quickly becomes clear that you are a cheerleader/advocate for and supporter of educators. Where does this passion come from?

I think it comes from seeing—in my experience and my children’s—how profound of an influence educators can have on a person’s life. By and large, the educators I know are deeply committed and connected to their students. They are raising our kids alongside us. Teaching is essential, important, and sometimes heart-wrenching work that is too often undervalued and underappreciated. I think this pandemic has further exposed that educators need more resources and respect. I will always show up for teachers, particularly those in public education who are facing enormous obstacles right now.

Do you have any classroom memories that have stuck with you because of their outsized impact on your career, life, etc.? Could you share one of those memories and explain how and why that moment was so important to you then and now?

In ninth grade, my [English language arts] teacher assigned us each to write a sonnet. The next day, when I turned mine in, she called me up to her desk and asked me if I’d had someone write it for me or if I’d copied it from someone. I was upset. Essentially, she was accusing me of plagiarizing. I told her no, the work was my own, and I’d write another one if she’d like. (I enjoyed writing poetry.) She seemed to make up her mind that I was being truthful. Then she said, “It’s quite good. I’d love to read more of your work.” I've never forgotten how proud—and vindicated!—I felt. What started out as a moment of temporary injustice turned out to be the validation I needed to believe I was a good writer. And that belief stuck.

What question haven’t I asked you that you wished I had . . . and would you mind pretending I had the foresight to ask it?

Haha, sure! Let’s pretend you asked me, “Hey, Anika, what’s one of your favorite books that you read this year?” And I answered, Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros. Every year there are one or two middle-grade novels I read and can’t shake. Like, I literally walk around thinking about them for weeks, even months, after. Efrén Divided is that book.

 

Interested in learning more about Anika? We urge you to visit her website to read more about her award-winning books and to make use of her numerous resources for educators.

Curriculum Associates’ commitment to equity includes our company culture as well as our educational programs. Discover more at our company website.

Photo credit: Stephanie Bernaba
(c) 2020 Leo Espinosa, used with permission from HarperCollins; cover design by Chelsea Donaldson

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