“I’m thinking about all children, how books offer them a way to visit other places, to meet other people.”
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: How many books have you published?
DIANA LÓPEZ : I’ve published eight books. Of those, six are middle grade novels. Sing With Me: The Story of Selena Quintanilla is my first picture book.
What inspired you to write Sing with Me?
I first started thinking about this book in 2017. I was in Hollywood for the Coco premiere around the time Selena got her Hollywood Star, so there was a lot of buzz about her. Then I realized that she would have turned fifty in 2021, and wouldn’t it be great to write a picture book as a sort of birthday present? Also, I felt called to write the book because I live in Corpus Christi and know, firsthand, how loved she is, how her music and spirit endures.
How was the process of writing your debut picture book, Sing with Me, different from (or similar to) your other works?
This is my debut picture book but also my debut biography. When I’m writing fiction, the story takes shape in my imagination. Most of the time, I know where the story ends, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there. There’s a lot of discovery in my writing process. With a biography, I’m working with a story that has, in a sense, already been written. This really changed my process. I had to do the research first. Because this is a picture book biography, I had to be selective when choosing what details of Selena’s life I was going to share. There simply isn’t room to cover everything.
This points to a second difference between Sing with Me and my other books. I’m used to having a lot of room to tell my stories. I actually overwrote and had to scale back, turning some passages into illustrator notes.
The other thing I had to learn was the format of a picture book. This meant thinking in terms of spreads, instead of chapters—fourteen spreads to be exact. In this way, writing a picture book is like writing a poem. A picture book is also a collaboration. There are two names on the cover of Sing with Me, my name and the illustrator’s, Teresa Martínez. This is every bit as much her book as mine. I feel so fortunate that our editor was able to pair us up. The moment I saw Teresa’s portfolio, I knew she was a perfect match for this project. I absolutely love the illustrations. My two favorites are the pic of Selena moving to Corpus Christi and of Selena showing off her clothing designs. This is where I connect to Selena the most, as someone who lives in Corpus Christi and as someone who grew up sewing with her mom.
You also wrote Coco: A Story About Music, Shoes, and Family (Disney Press, 2017); how do you find this experience helped you in writing a picture book?
I had so much fun working on the Coco project! I wrote the novel adaptation of the screenplay that was written by Adrian Molina. My “assignment” from Disney was to take the existing story and expand it, so I wrote bonus scenes, mostly about Mamá Coco, her past, and the ancestors in the Land of Dead. Coco’s not a biography, but it was my first experience with working on a story that’s already been written. You have to stay true to the original material. Like with the picture book, writing for Disney was a collaborative process. I had to propose and get approval for new content I was adding.
You’re also an educator (among other things) when you’re not writing. Do you find your writing about Selena to be part of educating younger generations about culture? What is the impact of reading and seeing history in this particular model?
My interest in writing for children is very motivated by my belief that they need to see their worlds represented in books. That’s why I love the Corpus Christi spread in my picture book, but there’s also another illustration that mentions other Texas locations—Laredo, McAllen, Freer. So first, I’m thinking about my audience in South Texas. Let’s celebrate who we are. Let’s celebrate our heroes. Let’s talk about them. But also, I’m thinking about all children, how books offer them a way to visit other places, to meet other people. I really do believe that books can lead us to a deeper respect for each other . . . to love.
You say, “los amigos mejores son libros," meaning “books are your friends.” How does having such a close relationship with literature translate into your writing style and also how you yourself read?
That’s my favorite dicho [saying] because books were my first friends, my best friends. When I was a child, I was very shy and putting a book in front of my face was a great way to hide. I’m a lot better at coping with my shyness, but even today, I often prefer the company of books. I love authors because they created these friends for me, and I love thinking that maybe, as an author, I am offering a new friend to some reader out there.
Sing with Me is also being published in Spanish as Canta Conmigo. Particularly with Texas’s Spanish-speaking population, how do you think publishing in multiple languages affects the reach of your book?
First, a shout-out and giant “Thank you!” to Carmen Tafolla for translating the book.
When I visit schools, I often meet teachers in bilingual or ESL programs who are looking for Spanish books, but I’m also trying to reach parents and grandparents. Research shows that when people come to this country, their children are often bilingual, speaking the homeland language and English, but their children, the immigrants’ grandchildren, are often English-only speakers. So we have children who cannot speak to their grandparents. This is especially true in Texas because we share a border with Mexico. Translated books can help bridge the communication gap. But also, having a Spanish edition means that the book is accessible in other countries, like Mexico where Selena was a huge hit.
Selena was often referred to as the “Queen of Tejano music.” How do you think contributing to educating folks about her legacy, particularly in the age group Sing with Me targets, represents the values Selena promoted during her rise to fame? Do you find the representation of such a large cultural icon impactful for young readers?
Yes, she’s often referred to as the Queen of Tejano music because she was one of the first women to break into a very male-dominated world. When I think of “legacy,” I think of what a person leaves behind. From Selena, her music and her fashions, but what she really leaves behind are those values you mentioned. She worked hard. She started singing at six, the same age as our readers. Her journey was a family journey, so she teaches us about the importance of that support system, of a community. But what I love most about Selena is her humility. She reminds us to never forget our roots, that you should always remember where you came from.
You have said the setting of many of your novels has been influenced by “the sparkling city by the sea,” your home of Corpus Christi, Texas. As Selena herself lived there for a while, and it is home to the Selena Museum and her childhood home, how does living where she once did affect your writing about her?
For one, I visited her museum a couple of times for inspiration and research. But also, she’s everywhere. At Valero where they sell commemorative mugs, on T-shirts, bumper stickers, HEB grocery bags. When I’m somewhere else and mention that I live in Corpus, people often say, “Selena’s hometown.” She’s very much a part of this city, so it was easy to find inspiration just by driving around.
If you can share with our readers, what’s your next writing project, and when can we look forward to seeing it?
I’m writing another middle-grade novel, tentatively called Los Monstruos. It’s set in the fictional town of Tres Leches, Tejas, which is located somewhere off 285 between Riviera and Falfurrias. It’s a reimagining of La Llorona’s story, told from the viewpoint of her daughter, the one child who survived. It’ll be available in the fall of 2022 from Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Books.
Number of books on your nightstand? eReader?
Strange habit or writing ritual?
When I’m stuck with my writing, I clean. You can tell how the writing is going by how messy or clean my house is.
I need a plan, every day. I can be spontaneous but only on days designated as “spontaneous activity” days.
Something interesting/funny/unique that few people know about you?
I’m a Trekkie.
Team Oxford comma?
Diana López is the author of the adult novella, Sofia's Saints, and numerous middle-grade novels, including Confetti Girl, Nothing Up My Sleeve, and Lucky Luna. She also wrote the novel adaptation for the Disney/Pixar film, Coco. Her picture book debut is Sing with Me: The Story of Selena Quintanilla. Diana retired after a 28-year career in education at both the middle grade and college levels, but she still enjoys meeting with students when she visits schools to chat about books and writing. To learn more about Diana, visit her website at www.dianalopezbooks.com.