Finding the Kindling for Each Tiny Spark with Pablo Cartaya

The award-winning author talks to SLJ about his third novel; a story of welding, colorism, and PTSD that at its heart is a loving reunion of father and daughter.

Each Tiny Spark centers Emilia Torres, a sixth-grader at Merryville Middle School in the small suburb of Merryville, Georgia. She struggles to keep up with her schoolwork because things get jumbled up in her head. Her family life is also a bit bumpy. She feels caught in the middle when her mom and her abuela argue about the way she should look and behave. And her dad, who’s a Marine, hasn’t been quite right since he came home from his last deployment. As the two of them work to restore a classic car together, they’re able to reconnect. Emilia’s family drama plays out as Merryville is engulfed in a school redistricting controversy that pits her friends against each other. This marks award-winning author Cartaya's third novel. Like his other books, it features a protagonist that readers will root for, and doesn't shy away from tackling tough issues like discrimination and mental health challenges. SLJ recently caught up with Cartaya to discuss addressing difficult topics with kids, and why he calls this novel a heart song to his daughter.

Photo by Leah Wharton

This is your first middle grade novel written from a girl’s perspective. Why did you choose to have a female protagonist this time, and was it harder to find her voice as compared to the boys you wrote about in your first two novels?

Here’s a little insight into how I start a story. Typically, a scene emerges in my head and plays out without any interference other than me physically writing it down. My writer’s voice has no say in this process. It’s happened with all my novels and Each Tiny Spark was no different. The scene that emerged was a 12-year-old girl welding a piece of metal to a car door while her father looked on quietly. The dad’s arms were folded, and in that vision, I saw USMC (United States Marine Corps) tattooed across his bicep. Then the questions started pouring in. Who was this kid? Who was her dad? What the heck do I know about welding? The answer to all of those questions was: I had no idea! But such is the creative process, at least for me. Something subconsciously was telling me to write this story with a female protagonist while a father looked on without saying much. When I finished the manuscript, I realized that I was building a character modeled around my own 12-year-old daughter. It was my way of trying to understand, respect, and listen to who she is and how she sees the world. I added many layers to this story—social activism, military families, immigration policies, community history, school redistricting—but at its heart, this is a book about a father and a daughter finding their way back to each other by literally welding a car back together. My books are very personal, as are my characters. Arturo in The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora was a version of my kid-self trying to hold on to my grandmother who I lost much too young. Marcus in Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish is me having lost my Spanish as a little boy and feeling this strange imposter syndrome when it came to my cultural identity, only to claim it back when I felt empowered by my own voice and experience. Emilia was equally personal. After I finished this book, I realized that first vision of the girl welding a car as her dad looked on quietly was in fact, a love letter to my daughter.

At the time, my daughter was in sixth grade like Emilia, and I was in awe of how she navigated the changes in who she is, her interpersonal relationships, and her views of the world. My daughter has a way of thinking that is incredible. She sees about a million things at once and then goes about piecing them together and seeing how they fit for her own self-interest. It’s not her being selfish, it’s just her seeing where she stands in it all. I observe her with her friends and with her family and she has confidence but also moments of vulnerability that I find profound. Sometimes I just don’t know what to say to her and then she tells me, “I don’t want you to say anything, Papi. Just listen.” So, I have, and then I wrote a book with her voice so when I read it back now, it’s her voice I’m listening to.   

Emilia’s Afro-Cuban mom traces her ancestry to the Yoruba people of Nigeria, and her grandmother, who is also Cuban, traces her family’s roots to Spain and Ireland. You’re from Cuba, but you’re not Afro-Cuban. Why did you want to write about a girl with this background? What steps did you take to make sure you got this part of the story right and was there any apprehension about whether this was a story you should be telling?

That’s a great question! In my own family, there are members who are Afro-Cuban who have been treated differently than my white family members. It’s so problematic. How do we contend with this disparity within our own families? This is what I was trying to get at with Emilia’s mom, Susanna (who has Afro-Cuban roots) and Emilia’s abuela (who claims Spanish and Irish ancestry). Emilia sees and loves them both, and wonders: What part does she get to claim? Even her friends weigh in on Emilia’s “whiteness.” Over the course of the novel, however, Emilia begins to understand the importance of not tolerating the erasure of her mother’s side of her identity. Emilia will continue to love her abuela, yes, but she will no longer be silent about her grandmother’s continual dismissal of her mother’s Afro-Cuban identity. Writing this aspect of the novel was important to me because it’s something I believe many in the Latinx community contend with. A cultural and racial identity that exists inside of us that is often rooted in a problematic history. In the process of writing this novel I set about going deeper into this complexity. I’ll always be grateful to Dr. Cristina Rhodes for providing dozens of academic papers and resources on Afro-Cuban and Latinx identity. These helped me dig even further into the far-reaching research of the subject. I’m also eternally grateful to my editor and publisher for challenging me to dig deeper than I even thought possible. I believe giving a scholar, or an expert in a particular field, access to your novel to provide useful feedback helps bring authenticity and sensitivity to your work.

Each Tiny Spark book cover

In Emilia’s town, there are some racial and ethnic tensions between the Latinx community and white people. The local school board is considering a controversial redistricting plan that has some of her friends choosing sides. While working on a school project, she learns how one neighborhood in her town came to be home to so many Latinx immigrants. She also learns about what she considers to be unfair immigration laws. Why did you want to tackle these issues for a young audience?

I believe we too frequently hand young people a saccharine view of the world when in fact, they are often experiencing real-life issues more extremely than adults. They become collateral damage in adult policy-making and I think it’s important to give them a voice; at least, that’s what I try to do in my novels. I’ve gone around the country speaking to middle schoolers and they are so incredibly smart and aware of the world. Their humor and (sometimes brutal) honesty make them my favorite people. A middle schooler will see through you, so my job is to be honest with them about what they’re facing on a daily basis. I do that through humor, through activism, and through the agency of the young people at the center of my stories. 

Emilia also has to contend with inattentive-type attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which is a form of ADHD. We see the struggles this causes her in school and occasionally in her interpersonal relationships. In your author’s note, you mention that your daughter has ADHD and you provide resources for your readers to learn about neurodiversity. What do you hope your young readers will get out of this aspect of Emilia’s story?

Emilia has some focus challenges and some executive function deficiencies with things she’s not interested in. As I mentioned, I wrote this story with my daughter in mind. It’s my hope that a neurodiverse reader like my daughter picks up the book and feels connected to it without feeling like it’s only about her neurodiversity. This isn’t an origin story about Emilia and her family discovering she has ADHD. It exists at the onset of the story and we see how Emilia navigates her world and her neurodiversity in unique ways. My daughter doesn’t go around discussing her neurodiversity, but she is learning how to use her particular exceptionalities to her advantage. When she is interested in something, there is hardly a detail she’ll miss. I wanted to celebrate neurodiverse thinkers like my own kid.

Your novel touches on another mental health condition, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Emilia’s dad, Antonio, is a Marine who’s home after a long deployment and he’s experiencing it. We see how PTSD affects him and the whole family as they try to figure out how best to help. Did you ever worry that you were putting too much on this young character’s plate?

Honestly, I don’t really worry about putting too much on a young character’s plate. Emilia’s life exists in multitudes; her experiences and challenges guide who she is and who she is becoming.  As I mentioned, I write realistic contemporary fiction. I write these novels with the central themes of community, family, and culture. They are ever-present in my work because that is the foundation of who I am, not only as a writer but as a human. These are the central values of my own life and have been since I was the age of my protagonists. I believe giving young readers the opportunity to see themselves in stories is as important as any endeavor one can hope to achieve. To that end, my goal is to respect the complexity and diversity of challenges young people face on a daily basis and to give them an access point to explore those challenges in my novels. Themes pertaining to social activism, cultural identity, and complex familial relationships are flush in my novels as they are in real life.

What are you working on now?

I’ve got another middle grade novel I’m writing for my amazing publisher Kokila Books that I can’t tell you about yet, and a few other surprises here and there. Stay tuned!

 

Marva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast, an interview show that primarily features authors of color such as Edwidge Danticat, Daniel José Older, and Nicola Yoon.

 

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