By Tiara C. Allen
Today we’re pleased to welcome Karina Nicole González to the WNDB blog to discuss picture book The Coquíes Still Sing, illustrated by Krystal Quiles and available in both English and Spanish on August 23, 2022!
Co-quí, co-quí! The coquí frogs sing to Elena from her family’s beloved mango tree—their calls so familiar that they might as well be singing, “You are home, you are safe.” But home is suddenly not safe when a hurricane threatens to destroy everything that Elena knows.
As time passes, Elena, alongside her community, begins to rebuild their home, planting seeds of hope along the way. When the sounds of the coquíes gradually return, they reflect the resilience and strength of Elena, her family, and her fellow Puerto Ricans.
What inspired you to write this book?
A multitude of factors, but primarily my love for Puerto Rico. When Hurricane María passed though in September 2017, my Abuela, who lives alone, didn’t have electricity for 6 months. Imagine that. Not once did she even consider leaving her casita or Puerto Rico. My Abuela and her neighbors took turns cooking for each other with the realization that no organization or government entity would swoop in and resolve their needs. To this day, almost 5 years since the hurricane, there are still some families with a blue tarp for a roof. Part of my intention in writing this story was to offer a corrective to awful stereotypes and mischaracterizations of who Puerto Ricans are and what they experienced after Hurricane María.
How did you begin crafting the characters for this story? Which character did you resonate with most while writing?
I knew early on in the drafting process that I wanted to write about a family, yet I wanted to present a family structure that we often don’t see in picture books: a widowed father, a grandmother, and two children. Many children are raised by single parents or grandparents, and I wanted to depict that in a picture book.
Each character is courageous in their own right. I loved the nurturing relationship that Elena had with her sweet doggie, Luna, and how they were each other’s companion through it all.
What was the easiest part to write? What was the most difficult?
Writing about a traumatic hurricane was a major challenge. Perhaps the most difficult scenes to write were the scenes leading up to and during the hurricane because it’s critical to strike a balance between creating an honest depiction versus causing the reader significant emotional distress. However, I do believe picture books can be cathartic not just for children, but also for the adults who read with them.
The easiest scene to compose was the last scene because it was my initial concept for the story—that the resilience of the flora and fauna of Puerto Rico mirrors the resilience of the Puerto Rican people.
Did you have a favorite line, scene, or part to write? What is it?
At night, our neighborhood is without light.
Yet, we can see the moon and the stars more clearly than ever.
I hold onto what I have—
and my family—
because my roots are strong.
These lines aren’t from the last scene of the book, but they express the essence of the story’s underlying message.
You mentioned that you spent your summers in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico with your grandmother. What is your favorite memory of summers with her? Have any of the memories you have with her made it into this book?
Just like in the opening scene of this picture book, when Elena plucks ripe mangos from the roof of her home, my grandmother would let me climb the ladder to the roof of her casita and collect mangos using a straw basket with a super long handle. The memory of shaking the tree branches with the basket, and moving quickly to catch them all, is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. After collecting the mangos, I’d present them to my grandmother and she would incorporate them into a delicious fruit juice with guava, passionfruit, and pineapple. When I began writing this story, I knew that I wanted to begin it there: on the roof, admiring the mango tree.
I loved the illustrations for this book, especially the shifting of the color palettes to represent the storm, then rebuilding, and, finally, a new Puerto Rico that has come out stronger than ever. What was it like to work with the illustrator?
Before The Coquíes Still Sing was acquired by Roaring Brook Press, I wandered into StoriesBK in Park Slope, Brooklyn looking for picture books for my students in October 2019. While inside, I noticed The ABCs of AOC on the center table and saw the name, Krystal Quiles, on the cover. This might sound corny, but her name felt familiar, like the name of a friend. Soon after, we discovered that we’re the same age and only lived a few blocks away from one another. Krystal understands why I write and conveys the same love and compassion for the world in visual form that I convey with words. Becoming friends with Krystal has been and will always be the greatest personal outcome of this project.
What was the publishing process like for you as a debut children’s book author?
As a kid, my parents taught me that opportunities don’t simply land on our laps. Instead, we must create the opportunity, forge the path, and accept the challenges that will arise during the journey, as they always do. When I had the idea for The Coquíes Still Sing in 2018, I followed my parents’ advice and created the opportunity myself, which is challenging in an industry that’s sometimes tilted to celebrities. I remember feeling dejected after receiving rejection emails from editors, along with comments that my story was “too specific” or not “global” enough. Through all of the tears and uncertainty, I reminded myself that this story would find a home one day with the right team—and it did! Luisa Beguiristaín and Connie Hsu at Roaring Brook Press welcomed this story into their publishing world, and made sure that this book would be released in both English and Spanish! I learned a tremendous amount about publishing and editing from collaborating with them.
In the author’s note, you mentioned that you were a bilingual speech pathologist, and saw a need for books in your practice that would not only help your students with speech but also reflected their cultural experience. Have you been able to see the impact of having books in your workplace that reflect your students’ experiences? What was that like?
I never wanted to be a writer as a kid, and I wasn’t able to conceptualize how people turned it into a career. Moreover, I struggled to connect with books throughout elementary school. Visualization is a significant component of reading, and it can be tough for a child to visualize scenes without prior knowledge on the subject or first-hand experience to comprehend the text. During my first year as a bilingual speech-language pathologist at an elementary school, I sought out contemporary picture books that reflected not only racial diversity but also stories that centered families from a working class background. Mi Papi Tiene Una Moto/My Papi Has a Motorcycle, by Isabel Quintero, was a favorite amongst my students because many of them have fathers who work in construction or ride motorcycles and bikes. They immediately connected to the text, and of course, were drawn in by Zeke Peña’s delightful illustrations. That was a major lightbulb moment. Early reading experiences are so important because educators and parents can cultivate a love for reading by simply presenting stories that resonate with children..
As someone who has been both the educator looking for diverse books and the author writing a book from their own perspective, do you have any advice for educators seeking out diverse picture books for their students?
Contemporary picture books are expensive, especially when building a classroom library. I recommend scoping out a book in a store or a library before purchasing since educators are only allotted a limited budget for school supplies. I also recommend having an diversity of narrative styles in your classroom library. Wordless picture books are also an excellent tool for narrative development, especially among children with language disorders or children who are learning English. A great resource for seeking out diverse books is none other than We Need Diverse Books! Also, Social Justice Books, Children’s Book Council, and Las Musas!
What do you hope readers, both young and old, take away from this story?
I hope that this story cultivates a deep love for humanity and the environment. I want Boricuas to feel proud when they hold this book because it’s also a love letter to them. I also hope that this story promotes greater awareness about the coquí frog, and inspires others to join conservation efforts.
Where would you like to go next in your publishing career?
I adore the picture book genre, so I’d like to keep writing picture books and possibly one day, a middle grade novel. In my opinion, picture books, compared to other genres, can have the greatest impact on a community because they are not typically read in solitude. More often, they are read between parent-child or teacher-small group/class. Shared reading not only fosters bonding and social connection, it can also foster community engagement.
Are there any books you would like to recommend?
My favorite author is Eduardo Galeano, and his collection of short stories, El Libro de Los Abrazos/The Book of Embraces, was the first book that I read that fully captured the spectrum of human behavior and emotion. His perfectly constructed stories inspired a curiosity for storytelling that I never had before. I still read the book once a year, and each time I notice a detail or experience a new feeling from a story that I didn’t feel the year before.
Mangos are a motif in this story. Do you have a favorite way to eat mangos?
Sloppily! When ripe, mangos are a messy fruit! Like Elena in The Coquíes Still Sing, I don’t bother being precious with it because it will drip all over my hands and face, and probably my shirt.
Karina N. González is a bilingual speech-language pathologist at an elementary school in Brooklyn, NY and author of the forthcoming picture books THE COQUÍES STILL SING/LOS COQUÍES AÚN CANTAN (Roaring Brook Press, 2022) and THE CHURRO STAND (Cameron Kids, 2024). Karina has an AAS in Textile Science from the Fashion Institute of Technology and a MS in Speech-Language Pathology from Brooklyn College. Karina resides in Brooklyn, NY and Aguadilla, PR with her partner.