In-depth Written Interview
with Alma Flor Ada
Alma Flor Ada, interviewed in her home in Mill Valley, California, January 16, 2009.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You are the award-winning author of more than 200 books for children, as well as a long-time professional educator. You taught college at a very young age–long before you were a published author. Now, you do both. How has your teaching influenced your writing, and vice versa?
ALMA FLOR ADA: All of the stories I listened to as a child–folktales and mythology from my grandmother, and real-life stories from my uncle and my father–have greatly contributed to my work as a teacher. To a large extent, teaching for me has meant working with stories, and I think I have been successful as a teacher because I love to tell stories. At the same time, I definitely believe that my teaching experiences and my understanding of the learning process have influenced my writing. Yet that has not always been intentional on my part - in fact I am often surprised when teachers point out to me yet another way that my stories can be used as teaching tool in the classroom.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Please tell more about the stories you heard from your family as a child.
ALMA FLOR ADA: Stories were a very important part of my childhood. My grandmother loved to tell stories and she did so masterfully, weaving elements of the present moment into the story in such a way that traditional folktales and myths came to life. She also taught me to recite poetry from the time I was very young. This greatly influenced my own desire to write poetry.
My uncle loved to tell family stories. He had a wonderful voice and could imitate characters of all kinds. His stories come to life by telling them as though he had been right there when those events took place. Many years later, I realized that many of the stories my uncle told had actually happened long before he was born! I owe to my uncle the inspiration for writing Where the Flame Trees Bloom and Under the Royal Palms, both of which are collections of family and childhood vignettes.
The stories my father created were completely different. The purpose of his stories was to awaken my curiosity and make me want to discover more about life. Every night, he would invent a new story, starting with a question such as, "Who do you think was the first person to ever cook food?" Then he would create a very believable story in response to that question, a story filled with rich details and well-developed characters. This was a great act of love, and left me with a life-long interest in how things are made and how civilizations have evolved.
So now I write stories in a variety of forms. Some are realistic, like my father's stories, others are biographical, like my uncle's, and others are traditional folktales or original fantasies, like my grandmother's.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Your family of storytellers was also a family of educators. Do you suppose it was your fate to become both as well?
ALMA FLOR ADA: I do come from a family of teachers, but I really had not planned on becoming a teacher. I started teaching unexpectedly at 17, when I was attending college. I had been given a scholarship in exchange for teaching students Spanish pronunciation. The nun who taught the Spanish courses read and wrote Spanish well, but she was not a fluent speaker and the college did not have a language laboratory. Unfortunately, she had a stroke a few days before classes were due to begin, so the school decided that I could fill in for a few days while they searched for an experienced teacher to take over the Spanish courses. After several weeks, they decided I was doing well enough to continue. So at the age of 17, I was teaching college courses with 60 students in each class. I was delighted to do it.
I began teaching high school because it was the best work I could find while I was earning my doctorate. And then, of course, I fell in love with my students, and I also fell in love with the process of teaching, much more so than when I was teaching college language classes. At college, the students had been my age or older. So while I could teach them to understand, speak, and read the Spanish language, I didn't become involved in the process of educating them as I did with my high school students in Peru. While teaching high school, I realized that helping my students learn about life was even more important than the subject matter I was teaching.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What influenced you to want to teach about life, and not just school subjects?
ALMA FLOR ADA: In Cuba, my grandmother founded a night school for women who worked as domestic workers, something that was not appreciated by some of the people in our town. But the students she taught were very grateful for the opportunity to create a better life for themselves. Many of these women ended up becoming teachers.
My grandmother also established a boarding school for both boys and girls– something very unusual at the time–where she offered a progressive education focused more on developing students' humane and ethical sensibilities than on grades.
Perhaps my first clear understanding of the difference between teaching and education came when I was fifteen and spending the summer at a school near Philadelphia. Two students were being harassed by others for being Jewish. I was very disturbed by this, and I asked the registrar, who had been very kind to me, for help and guidance. I mentioned that we were studying The Merchant of Venice in class, and that since the play portrayed a Jewish character negatively, it might be used as a discussion starter for addressing the prejudice that was taking place at school. This kind woman promised to talk to the English teacher about this. Unfortunately, the teacher refused this opportunity to address the topic of prejudice, and brushed off the possibility by saying that "Shakespeare was just reflecting the ideas of his time."
A few years earlier, my father had been badly cheated in a business deal. The man who cheated him happened to be Jewish, but my father decided to use this opportunity to help me understand something very important. He asked me: "Do you know that there are Cubans who have stolen and are in prison for their crimes? Do you know that there are Cubans who have committed murder?" When I said yes, he asked, "How would you feel if someone were to say that all Cubans are thieves, that all Cubans are murderers?" Then he continued, "On this same street there are several Jewish families, and you know how hard they work, how much they care for their children. Never say that we were harmed by a Jewish man. We were harmed by a man. That he happened to be Jewish is not the reason he harmed us, and it should never have a bearing on how you feel or relate to other Jewish people."
Remembering my father's words, I could see the great difference between someone who sought to educate, as my father did, and someone who simply teaches.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What was your home life like in Cuba?
ALMA FLOR ADA: As a young child I was particularly blessed by living in two worlds, because we lived in a large house at the edge of the city. When I walked out my front door, I was on a main road and a few blocks away from the city. I went to school in town, so I knew all about city life. But when I stepped out my back door, I was in the countryside. There were fields and a river that ran close by. My grandmother raised chickens, geese, and peacocks. She also had a few cows that were milked every day and then roamed freely out in the pastures. So I enjoyed the experience of having both a rural life and a city life at the same time.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What early experiences did you have that informed the direction of your work and life?
ALMA FLOR ADA: I was a very observant and quiet child, and the small Cuban city in which I grew up was a microcosm of the larger world. I could observe so many people of different ages, races, and backgrounds. There were some Japanese people, some Chinese people, certainly many people of African descent, people from Jamaica, from Haiti, many people from Spain, and I could observe and listen to each one. They all contributed to my understanding of the world.
When I came to the States again at age 17 to attend college, I discovered that the girls of Mexican ancestry who attended the college denied being Latinas and refused to acknowledge that they spoke Spanish. They felt very ashamed of their heritage. When I finally understood this, I was very deeply affected by it.
One day, one of the girls told me that it was another student's birthday and invited me to celebrate with them. I followed along, very happy to be included. But they didn't go to any of the meeting rooms in the dorm where birthdays were usually celebrated. Instead, they hid in the boiler room, opened a package of enchiladas and began to eat them standing up. I couldn't believe it; I didn't understand what was happening. These enchiladas had been lovingly prepared by one of their mothers, and had been brought to school all wrapped up to keep them warm. Then I realized that the girls didn't want other students to see them eating their traditional food. I began crying with a deep sadness thatI remember to this day. At that moment, at age 17, I made a firm decision that I would spend my life doing whatever I could so that people didn't have to feel so ashamed of who they were.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Multiculturalism plays a huge role in your books. Please talk about I Love Saturdays y domingos, your bilingual picture book about a child with grandparents from two different cultural traditions.
ALMA FLOR ADA: The idea for I Love Saturdays y domingos came to me during a vacation in Hawaii. One Sunday afternoon, as I saw many families out enjoying the day together, I realized how comfortable the members of these ethnically diverse extended families were with one another. I loved this, and it inspired me to write a story about a child with two pairs of grandparents who are ethnically different, yet interact with ease. While each pair has their own language and culture, they share similar values and kinds of activities. I wanted to point out the differences and the commonalities in a graphic way that would be easy for a young child to see.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What value do you believe there is in sharing and drawing attention to multicultural experiences and lives?
ALMA FLOR ADA: The essential human values are present in all cultures. Family is important, friendship is important, caring for children is important; otherwise, we wouldn't survive. The values of kindness and knowledge, generosity and ingenuity . . . we find these in every culture. All these elements that we share in common, inspire my admiration and appreciation for the diverse forms of our human experience, and my commitment to respect for all human beings.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Your teaching and writing personas come together in the annual multicultural literature conference and program that you started at the University of San Francisco.
ALMA FLOR ADA: Yes. At the University of San Francisco, we developed a strand within the doctoral program in international multicultural education devoted to multicultural children's literature. An annual conference grew out of this called, "Reading the World: A Conference Celebrating Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults." You can learn more about the conference at: www.soe.usfca.edu/institutes/reading_world/index.html. The emphasis of the international multicultural program has been on equality, social justice, and peace. These values are at the core of all my pedagogy and continue to play a key role in the work of many of my former students. One great source of satisfaction in my life is that so many of my students have become educators who are actively pursuing these values.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you hope readers take away from your stories?
ALMA FLOR ADA: There is a phrase in multicultural education that I like very much: we all need mirrors and we all need windows. It's important for all children to be able to find themselves mirrored in the books they read, along with their parents, their relatives, and their communities, and to find their experiences reflected in respectful and interesting ways. At the same time, literature can become a window into other worlds, enriching and expanding our own experience. So one thing I hope my books can do is to provide mirrors for some children and windows for others.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What book of yours do you believe is particularly good at providing readers those mirrors and/or windows?
ALMA FLOR ADA: My Name is Maria Isabel has drawn an extraordinary response from readers. I continue to receive letters from both children and adults who tell me that this is their mother's story, their uncle's story, their cousin's story, their own story–that someone else tried to change their name at one time or another. People are very moved by that book because it speaks to a difficult experience that many of us have gone through.
TEACHINGBOOKS: In your book Mama Goose, you've compiled a collection of Spanish rhymes and had them translated into English.
ALMA FLOR ADA: I love traditional Spanish folklore for young children. The selections for this book, as well as for ¡Pío Peep! were chosen in collaboration with Isabel Campoy, and then we had the verses translated into English. For our more recent titles, Merry Navidad and Moo Muu, my daughter Rosa Zubizarreta created the English versions.
The verses from the oral tradition are often quite clever, rich in wordplay, and can serve as wonderful teaching tools. For example, when we teach reading, there is a lot of emphasis on something called phonemic awareness, which is the recognition of initial sounds, and of alliteration and rhyme. In Spanish, phonemic awareness also includes the division of words into syllables. In Spanish folklore, there are many rhymes that play with changing vowel sounds, such as "Una mosca parada en la pared", which becomes "Ana masca parada an la parad". There are also many rhymes that play with the division of words into syllables. Familiarity with these skills helps prepare a child to become a good reader and an articulate speaker.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What is your bilingual experience like as a speaker and writer? Are there differences for you in writing in Spanish and English?
ALMA FLOR ADA: Since I've lived in so many different places, for most of my adult life I have not had a place that I could consider home. But I have always had my language. It is in the Spanish language that I have taken comfort, felt supported, and felt at home.
If I had become bilingual at a young age–growing up with one language at home and one language outside of the home, or with one parent speaking one language and the other parent speaking another language–I imagine I might have become equally at ease in the two languages and felt like the same person in both of them. But I know very few people who in fact feel or act that way. Instead, most bilingual people I know feel that they have two personalities or even two different selves; language embodies so many cultural values and attitudes that one often feels, thinks, and acts differently in each language.
This is true for me as well. I feel very comfortable writing in Spanish, but I don't feel equally comfortable writing in English. I have not attempted to write much poetry in English, while I frequently write poetry in Spanish. It's a completely different feeling. I can be much funnier in Spanish than I can be in English. My Spanish writing is full of puns, alliteration, and rhymes, woven into the language in a way that I cannot achieve in English. Some people have even called me the "Spanish Dr. Seuss" because of the whimsical language I use when writing in Spanish. In contrast, when I write in English, I rely much more on the strength of the story and the characters because I don't have those linguistic resources to play with.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Where the Flame Trees Bloom and Under the Royal Palms are two of your very well received novels that are often read in schools. [Note: Under the Royal Palms won the Pura Belpré Award for narrative in 2000.] Why do you suppose these books work particularly well in classroom settings?
ALMA FLOR ADA: Teachers have used both Where the Flame Trees Bloom and Under the Royal Palms with fifth through eighth-grade students to encourage them in writing their own autobiographies. The brief vignettes in these books help students realize that writing about one's life does not need to be an insurmountable task–they don't need to choose something huge to write about, but instead they can choose to appreciate and value the meaningful moments. Under the Royal Palms are mostly about my own life experiences, while Where the Flame Trees Bloom is a bit more about my experiences of other people around me.
I've received some beautiful letters and comments from children about how these books have helped them value their own lives more, even though they are living half a century later and in a very different reality that the one depicted in the book. Nothing moves me more than when children and teachers tell me they appreciate my grandmother's lesson in "The Teacher" and understand that we all can take more responsibility to recognize and respond to the needs of those around us.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What is a typical workday for you?
ALMA FLOR ADA: I can't describe a typical workday for me because two days are never alike. The only constant in my life is diversity.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you do when you get stuck?
ALMA FLOR ADA: It is not a real big problem for me for one reason, because I am usually working with so many different projects at the same time that if I'm stuck in one, I tend to move into another one. And then when I go back to the place where I got started, it's like almost having to start all over again, and then that tends to un-stick me.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell teachers?
ALMA FLOR ADA: I like to tell teachers that the act of reading can be a dialogue between the author and the reader, that the reader is as important as the text; that we should not limit ourselves to finding out what the author has to say and being able to repeat that. It can be far more important to consider how author's text relates to our own lives–to who I am, to what I think, to my own experiences–and to reflect upon the kinds of choices I want to make in my life, now that I have read and thought about this story.
I co-authored Authors in the Classroom with F. Isabel Campoy. In the book and in our related workshops, we encourage educators to find their own stories and to use those stories to create their own books. The books that teachers write from their own life experiences can be extremely meaningful for their students because of their authenticity, their immediacy, and the fact that they're written by someone the students know. In addition, the experience of authorship allows teachers to talk to their students about writing in a very different way, because now it's something that they themselves have done. They can say, "Look, this is what I've been working on." They can talk about being stuck, about how the book can take a different turn from what they had originally intended, about the difficulty of finding a title–the same challenges that professional authors face. I think this is a powerful message for students.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell students?
ALMA FLOR ADA: The same thing I tell teachers: that reading can be an enjoyable adventure, and that they should read books knowing that what they are bringing to the book is as important as what is in the book. Unless someone reads a book, it is just a lot of black marks on paper; it means nothing. A book only takes on meaning when someone reads it. As an author, I want students to think not just about what I have to say, but also about what they have to say now that they have read my book. It is through their reflections that the book becomes meaningful.
And I would like to remind students that they, too, can write. If they can speak, they can write. And how powerful writing is! With a computer or with a simple pen or pencil they can create the world as they want it to be, any reality they want to imagine. They can invent characters and have them behave however they would like, they can make things turn out however they dream them to be! No power could be greater.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What is the message of your life's work?
ALMA FLOR ADA: We all have stories to tell, and with the richness of technology today, we should not be limited to reading stories written by professional authors. While there are many classic writers whose works I will always love, I believe that everyone is an author. Everyone is the protagonist of his or her own life story. And anyone who can acknowledge that and look deeply into their own life will find some very interesting things to write about.
If we really want to educate young people, not just teach them, we need to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of education, if not for justice? What is the purpose of education, if not for inclusion? What is the purpose of education, if not for peace? Although peace has not been a constant in human history, it can be our constant goal. We need to believe that it is indeed a possible and a realistic goal.
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