Author Sofía Quintero, National Book Foundation's BookUp
Longtime BookUp instructor Sofia Quintero published her second young adult novel, Show and Prove, last month. Show and Prove follows two friends, Smiles and Nike, as they try to keep their friendship together while attending separate schools.
Below, Quintero shares her thoughts on growing up in the 80s, not writing in proper English, and the influence that young adult novelists had on her authentic writing voice.
National Book Foundation: What drew you to teaching for BookUp? What about the program's philosophy resonated with you?
Sofia Quintero: One of the reasons why I love being a teaching artist for BookUp New York City is because of the age group that it targets. We work with tweens. Middle school grades. That's a key time in a young person's literary history. That's the time when they're still open to reading, but there are other things that are starting to interest them that can pull them out of their reading habits. It's a critical time to make the reading habits stick, but at the same time it's not pulling teeth to try to get them to read in the first place.
I particularly love where I work because I was born, raised, and still live in the Bronx. I work in a Bronx location, so it's very fulfilling to me to be working in my home borough, and working with kids that are a lot like me and who can see themselves in me. My own teaching philosophy is to expose them to books that they might not otherwise read, particularly authors of color, authors whose stories are based in New York City. That's not all that we read, because I really do take into account what might interest them. But I find that there are a lot of authors, stories, and books that they would really relate to and that would really resonate with them that will keep them reading, but that they have never heard of. So I really make it a point not to expose them to things that they're going to read already in school.
A lot of times, people say that people read to escape. But I think if you come from any community that is underrepresented, in any kind of media, whether that's around race, around class, or sexual orientation, religion, whatever it may be, sometimes you read to be affirmed. To have your humanity rendered complexly. And sometimes seeing yourself on the page is affirming. And we know that for some young people, that can also be life-saving.
NBF: What has been your most memorable experience with BookUp so far, if you could name one?
SQ: I can't name just one. There have been many. I've been a teaching artist for BookUp for seven years now, and every year, there are always a couple of memorable stories.
One really exciting thing happened this past year—a young woman [came to my site] who was in the program a couple years ago, one of my first students. She was someone who never wanted to read in the group. She was someone that I discovered was maybe a couple of grades behind her reading level and was very, very self-conscious about that. But she was always there. She comes back to visit me, which was awesome. At one point, I was having a rough moment with the kids. It’s springtime, it's getting to the end of the school year, they're a little restless. She was like, "Hey! Sofia's here doing something for you and y'all need to respect and appreciate it!" [Laughs.] It just goes to show you that, in the moment, you may not realize the impact that you're actually having. Because she was always really quiet - she never wanted to read out loud in the group for the reasons I've explained. So for her to want to come back and spend an afternoon with us as a high school student and to impart on the younger ones, "Hey, you really need to understand what an amazing experience and opportunity you have here,” not only because she had my back, but also because it told me that her experience in BookUp made a difference and was something that was memorable to her and something that she wants other young people to have.
NBF: Which books changed you as a young reader?
SQ: I just finished writing a guest blog post about this. I was talking a little bit about my literary forbears, particularly as a young adult novelist. My blog post ended up being a tribute to Walter Dean Myers, but I also mentioned people like Judy Blume. Judy Blume could write haiku on Kleenex and I’d want boxes of it, you know? [Laughs.] I grew up reading Marilyn Sachs because Marilyn Sachs was also the first author that I read who had books set in the Bronx. [And] S.E. Hinton - I was in Catholic school in seventh grade, and I chose Elizabeth as my Confirmation name because I wanted to have the initials 'S.E.' to put on all my writing. So I was S.E. Quintero. [Laughs.] That's how influential she was. What I loved about her work was that I related socioeconomically to the young people she wrote about. So there was something about thinking, "they don't live where I live, they're not the same race as I am, but there's something I find really relatable as a girl who grew up working class."
But what really turned it around for me was Walter Dean Myers. When I discovered his work, it influenced me not only as a reader, but as a writer. I thought that if I wanted to be a writer, then my characters would have to be white. And when I discovered his work, I was like, "no, I can put my people on the page." And that liberated my authentic voice. Reading his work led me to Rosa Guy, and Rosa Guy led me to Nicholasa Mohr, and it just opened up a whole new world for me. It opened me up to a lot of African-American writers that I might not otherwise have been exposed to at that age. I might have had to wait until I was in college to read these. But once I found one, I went looking for more and I found them because they were there.
NBF: You could finally put yourself on the page.
SQ: Exactly. That was really important. And when I say myself, I don't mean just as a woman of color, as a girl who's growing up in the Bronx, as people growing up in some way economically-challenged, not growing up with money. It was also even just the way we spoke. The vernacular. I learned that it's alright to say “ain't.” [Laughs.] My characters can speak the way they authentically are, and that makes for good story. It's not making for good story to make them speak proper English when nobody speaks like that on the playground.
NBF: I grew up in an area in which “ain't” was used commonly, and I remember the first time I read a book that had the word “ain't” as part of the grammar. It's like the people you know are possible because you see them in books. It sounds backwards, but I know what you mean. That struck me.
SQ: Here's something that I've been thinking about a lot lately. A lot of times, people say that people read to escape. But I think if you come from any community that is underrepresented, in any kind of media, whether that's around race, around class, or sexual orientation, religion, whatever it may be, sometimes you read to be affirmed. To have your humanity rendered complexly. And sometimes seeing yourself on the page is affirming. And we know that for some young people, that can also be life-saving.
Literature can be life-saving. I noticed that with my BookUp kids. Sure, they want to read whatever is the hot book, and of course they want to read fantasy and any kind of speculative fiction, but they also like to read stories with kids that look just like them, that have the same problems as them. And I've noticed that what they particularly want to see is to see those characters prevail. So they don't want sanitized situations. They want [stories] to be raw, they want them to be gritty, but they also do want to see the hope at the end of the story.
NBF: Which authors inspire you now? Which authors continue to inspire you?
SQ: One of my favorite authors is Richard Price. I'll read anything he writes, and I'd like to think that I'm writing Richard Price-esque novels for a young audience. [Laughs.] I love the economy of his language, and the richness of his characters, and the way place is always a character in his stories, and how he really deals with complex issues of race and class and where they intersect in his stories in ways where it's always there. It's visceral, but it's not heavy-handed. So I'm always reading and rereading his work and being inspired by it and learning how less can be more. If you can say the same thing in one word instead of five, do the one word.
NBF: What has surprised you most during your time at BookUp?
SQ: I'm constantly growing from the surprises I get by working with young people as a BookUp teaching artist. But the one thing that always sticks out to me was how reading to young people —even if they're not that young, even if they're too cool for school, middle schoolers—what a profound act of love it is.
So the way I get them interested in something that they're kind of like, "I don't know about that, Sofia," is I will read to them. I'll do an animated reading. I'll perform the characters and change my voices. And it never ceases to amaze me just how that's an act of love for a lot of young people. We can speculate why that is, but I have had the toughest boy who's got the persona on, he's edgy and hard or whatever, listen to me read like this. [Leans forward.] I have had that happen. So I realized that reading to these kids is showing them love. And they will listen. The toughest kid will melt when he's being read a story. I try to do that as often as possible.
But then I get to the point where I go, "I want you to read to me." [Laughs.] And then, of course, if I do my animated thing, then they want to perform. It's a tactic because making it fun and performing it and making it visceral in that way makes them want to—especially if [the story] has some choice words in it—because I don't censor with my young people.
And that's what's been really wonderful about working for BookUp New York City because the Foundation does not tell us, "You better not read that." They say, "The kids want to read it, and you want to teach it, and it addresses the objective of getting them excited about reading and getting them to read independently and getting them to be lifelong readers. Run with it." That's not the case everywhere.
NBF: Could you talk about your inspiration for the book? Were Smiles and Nike drawn from personal experience?
SQ: I think I've been writing Show and Prove since I was twelve years old. It was at that age that I was going to a summer day camp in the south Bronx. I was looking at some of the counselors, the older kids, and being curious about them.
It's not like when I sat down to write it, I was like, "I'm writing a piece of historical fiction." I think if I would've told myself [that], I think I would've scared myself out of doing it. [Laughs.]
[The book] was being described as historical fiction, and I was like, "No wonder it was so damn hard." [Laughs.] All the research and details and trying to get it accurate but also letting the details of the time enhance the story but not overpower the story - that was a challenge. That was a dance.
What was really important to me was that I wanted to capture that time. I grew up in that time, and I think even as a kid growing up then, I had a very instinctual understanding that what we were creating, especially around hip hop, was something really special. And something very powerful. I remember writing things down, stories, anecdotes, starting off with something that was true and then remixing it. [Laughs.] So even at that age, I knew that there was something there that was worthy of preserving on the page.
There's just something about being a young, working class, working poor, person of color in New York City in the 80's that needs to be understood by people outside of that experience. The way I put it is that we created something really amazing, hip hop, when we weren't even supposed to survive. Not only did we survive AIDS, Reaganomics, poverty, racism, gang violence, police brutality, substance abuse - not only did we survive that, we created something endured. And whatever you might think of commercial hip hop now, there's a lot there to like and there's a lot there to critique and there's a lot of things you could say both about. But we created something that endured when we ourselves were not supposed to endure. When we ourselves were not supposed to survive and thrive. So I think that is worthy of respect and preservation and it's US history. It's US cultural, social, political history. And it's [history] that everybody should know.
NBF: Could you give us some recommendations for summer reading?
SQ: I just finished reading Daniel Jose Older's Shadowshaper. I highly recommend it, not just because he's a friend and because he's a fellow BookUp instructor, but because it's an amazing book with necessary themes and characters. I'm not a person who reads a lot of fantasy. So for me to get caught up in Sierra Santiago's story is no little thing, because it's not usually a genre that I read. And I loved reading that book on the subway with that beautiful cover. I was trying to get the day camp kids' attentions like, "Yeah, you want to read this." We don't see covers like that, so right from the cover, it's a groundbreaking book. I'm very happy for that and to recommend that.
A book that I haven't read that I'm really looking forward to reading is Adam Silvera's More Happy Than Not. Of course I've got to support a fellow Bronxite. [Laughs.] I'm really excited to read that.
Some other authors that I highly recommend that inspire me as a writer whose work I like to reread whose work I like to introduce to young people is Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon, anything by Coe Booth, a fellow Bronxite, [and] anything by Rita Williams-Garcia. And of course, for me, my classics are to reread Judy Blume, reread Marilyn Sachs, Paul Zindel.
And of course, Walter Dean Myers. This month makes a year since he passed. And that's in the forefront of my mind because my book just came out this month, [during] the anniversary of his death. One of the most affirming criticisms that I got for Show and Prove was a likening to Walter Dean Myers's All the Right Stuff. That was just an honor to have.