Susan Middleton Elya never planned to major in Spanish, but she accumulated so many college credits it just turned out that way. She never planned to teach Spanish, but when she applied to teach third grade the school district tapped her for high school Spanish. And she never planned to use Spanish in her writing, but began selling her work when she wrote Say Hola to Spanish (Lee & Low, 1996).
After six and a half years of rejections of what Elya describes as her “little English stories,” Elya’s mother suggested writing something using Spanish. Elya responded in classic mother-daughter fashion: “Oh, Mom, please. . .” But Elya finally succumbed to her mother’s advice when her own daughter, then seven, asked to learn Spanish. Although Elya had taught classrooms of students to speak Spanish, she’d never taught just one child. She began building her daughter’s vocabulary by writing rhyming couplets like: “Smoke is called humo. Fire is fuego. Douse them with agua. ¡Hasta luego!” Two years later, Elya’s rhymes and Spanish gelled into Say Hola to Spanish, followed by SayHola to Spanish, Otra Vez (Lee & Low, 1997) and Say Hola to Spanish at the Circus (Lee & Low, 2000).
In Elya’s opinion, the most common misconception about writing for children is that “it’s fast and easy.” Say Hola to Spanish required many revisions because the publisher wanted to please all Spanish-speaking people. According to Elya, Venezuelans say blue jeans differently than Spaniards, and Mexicans say computer differently than Dominican Republicans.
Geez, Louise (Putnam, 2003), one of Elya’s upcoming picture books, took five years to complete. Carolyn Clutterbug metamorphosed into Louise the Ladybug who metamorphosed into Louise the Stinkbug. With each change, Elya got to know her character better and better. With the last change Elya discovered Louise’s secret—she tries so desperately to please because she doesn’t feel loved. Sound simple? Trust Elya, it isn’t!
Many of Elya’s other books came from chance encounters or conversations. Home at Last (Lee & Low, 2002) was born during a visit to a park near Elya’s home in Alamo, California. In a matter of minutes, Elya heard people speaking Spanish and French, and saw men wearing turbans and women wearing saris. She began to think about what it felt like to move to America and assimilate a different culture. Home at Last is a departure from traditional children’s books because the main character is the mother. The idea for Where’s Un Baño? (Putnam, 2003) came from a friend who traveled to Mexico and wished she’d known how to say bathroom in Spanish. The plot of Where’s Un Baño? is circular, much like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff—a book Elya wishes she had written.
Before publishing her own work, Elya studied books she loved. “I typed Shy Charles by Rosemary Wells and Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes into my computer to see why they were so wonderful.” Looking at the words without the distraction of the illustrations gave Elya a sense of the language and rhythm of the stories that helped her in her own work.
Elya lives with her husband and three children, all of whom are sources of support and inspiration. Writing time is carved out between school schedules, sports, and volunteering at school and church. “I try to write every day, one to two hours a day. Sometimes I get lucky and get five hours in a row. . .If I don’t write for a couple of weeks, I get grumpy.” Besides teaching Spanish, Elya was a mail carrier, sold books door-to-door, lived in Spain, completed the student-teaching requirement for her degree in Venezuela, chaperoned a high school trip to Mexico City, and backpacked through parts of Europe and South America. She advises hopeful writers to “get as many experiences behind you as you can. It helps when you become a writer by giving you a wider sense of the world.”