In 1997, the Dominican Republic honored its own Julia Alvarez for her poetry and compelling novels about Latina culture. Alvarez’s third grade teacher was present for the festivities. According to Alvarez, “She just kept shaking her head. . .She described me as viva—a live one—[in third grade]. . .She said, ‘I knew you would amount to something, but I didn’t think it would be something positive.’”
Alvarez flunked every grade through fifth and was a regular at summer school. She hated school, hated reading, but loved a good story. Behind her house in the Dominican Republic was an open field populated by whole families of squatters with stories to tell. Alvarez says, “I gave away my books and school supplies to ingratiate myself into being allowed to join. . .this whole other life equivalent to a band of gypsies.”
When Alvarez emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York City at the age of ten, she realized she’d missed the body of work we call children’s literature. “I came from an oral culture. . .I never read Mary Poppins. I didn’t know Winnie the Pooh, The Secret Garden. . .any of it.” Now, when Alvarez curls up with a children’s book she calls it research. “It’s a wonderful excuse to do reading you want to do.”
Between fifth grade and adulthood, Alvarez found her poet’s voice, and has subsequently earned numerous awards and publishing credits for her poetry. Her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Algonquin Books) was published in 1991, quickly followed by In the Time of the Butterflies (Algonquin Books, 1994). Encouraged by editors at writer’s conferences to try writing for children, Alvarez initially rejected the idea, but the idea continued to resurface. Finally, she began reading children’s literature. “The more you read, as a writer, the more you want to try it out yourself.” To Alvarez, writing for children was a challenge to learn more about her chosen craft.
The Secret Footprints (Knopf, 2000), Alvarez’s first picture book, retells a Dominican legend from her childhood about a tribe of ciguapas with their feet on backwards so no one can follow their footprints. Seeing nothing like it in America’s children’s literature, Alvarez says, “There was an erasure there. . .It felt like a pebble in my shoe. . .it hurts to have been forgotten.”
According to Alvarez, the tias, or aunts, in How Tia Lola Came to Stay (Knopf, 2001) are the Dominican Republic’s Mary Poppins. Alvarez’s tias raised her, fed her, clothed her, educated her, disciplined her and loved her. She wanted to tell their story.
Alvarez records every book she reads in her reading journal. In it are several books about the holocaust of World War II and other European tragedies, but nothing about the oppression, the disappearances, and the atrocities committed by dictators in the Western hemisphere. Alvarez asked herself, “Where were all the books about our holocaust?” With Before we were Free (Knopf, 2002), Alvarez begins to fill the void in her people’s written history and encourages others to tell their stories.
Alvarez is currently a writer-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. She and her husband, Bill Eichner, share twelve acres with assorted wild turkeys, deer, foxes, and birds. A disciplined writer, Alvarez starts early each day and writes without interruption until mid-afternoon. “My family knows not to call until after 2:00,” says Alvarez.
Now that Alvarez has found children’s literature, she wants to share it with other people. She and her husband have started a school in the Dominican Republic to improve the literacy rate and make literature accessible to young readers and non-readers. She’s found that picture books, with the combination of splendid art and text, appeal to all ages. Mostly, she remembers how she wasn’t a reader or a good student when she was young. By perfecting her writing, Alvarez reached for the stars and succeeded. She encourages the children she teaches to reach for the stars, too.