Today we’re pleased to welcome Julia Alvarez to the WNDB blog to discuss her picture book Already a Butterfly: A Meditation Story, illustrated by Raúl Colón, out June 16, 2020!
Already a Butterfly is a gentle picture book tale about self-soothing practices and self-confidence beliefs.
With so much to do in so little time, Mari is constantly on the move, flitting from flower to flower, practicing her camouflage poses, and planning for migration. She’s the busiest butterfly around. But does being productive mean she is happy? Mari couldn’t say. The only way she feels like a butterfly is by acting like one. Little does Mari know, the secret to feeling like herself is simply to focus her breath, find her quiet place, and follow her instincts. With the guidance of a thoughtful flower bud, Mari soon learns to meditate and appreciate that she was a butterfly all along.
Acclaimed author Julia Alvarez extolls the importance of mindfulness, reflection, and self-care for young children in this gratifying picture book, stunningly illustrated by award-winning artist Raúl Colón.
Already a Butterfly: A Meditation Story is about the importance of confidence, self-care, and mindfulness. What was it like working with Raúl Colón on the illustrations? How do you think the art adds to the themes in this book?
Raúl Colón’s art is a meditation in and of itself. I first became acquainted with his work because he illustrated several of my friend Pat Mora’s books, Doña Flor: A Tall Tale about a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart and Tomás & the Library. His work is magical, as in, jaw-dropping awed WOW! magic. His own wordless picture books, Draw! and Imagine!, tell stories through their images.
A few years back I fell in love with his illustrations for Sugar Cane: A Caribbean Rapunzel, in which he reinvents the classic fairytale heroine with fair skin and long, straight blond hair into a tropical brown-skinned girl with abundant kinky-curly hair. (While on a family visit to the Dominican Republic, I went to my mother’s salón, and I asked her stylist if she could please por favor give me a head of that hair. But of course, only in Raúl Colón’s imagination would I be so lucky!)
Then I did get lucky when Raúl agreed to do the art for Already a Butterfly. I wanted my Mari to reflect the Dominican girls (Mariposas) who had inspired my story. In most books about meditation for children, the main character(s) are animals or Caucasian children. Nothing wrong with that, but I wanted images that would widen the range of models for young meditators. I thought Raúl Colón would find a way to infuse my meditation story with color, beauty, magic, and wings. Boy, was I ever right!
Why did you want to explore self-care and mindfulness for young readers at this age level? Why do you believe it’s important for children to start mindfulness and self-care practices at a young age?
I believe meditation helps us focus and sharpen our attention and be present to our lives at any age. The younger we start the more embedded and integrated it is in our psyches. It becomes a way of life, not just a discipline we struggle with.
My own meditation practice began about a decade ago during a difficult time of family illness and loss. The practice helped create a still space in my heart that allowed me not to be carried away by turbulent emotions and events. Of course, this space felt familiar: I have been coming here all my writing life. Every time I put away my own concerns and self and open up to my characters, their stories, their emotions. I think of meditation and writing as kindred ways of practicing being centered (vs. self-centered), open-hearted, open-minded, receptive to the mystery, the earth, and all its wonders.
Then, six years ago, I found myself with my two young granddaughters (12 and 9) in my native country, the Dominican Republic, volunteering at the Mariposa DR Foundation. Mariposa DR is an organization founded by Tricia Thorndike Suriel to educate and train young impoverished girls (8-18) into becoming strong, self-empowered leaders. (The logo on their t-shirts reads: “I am the world’s most powerful force for change.”) These girls are being trained in different life skills and trades, graduating from secondary school, going on to colleges. These huge transformative changes are often overwhelming and unprecedented in their own and their families’ experience. It’s easy for them to drop out, get distracted, lose their way, or feel overwhelmed.
Because of my experience with a meditation practice, I realized that the girls would benefit from learning a practice that would allow them to stay focused, centered, confident—in order, not just to succeed, but to flourish.
It turned out that Mariposa DR foundation’s “feeder pre-school,” 3 Mariposas Montessori, was already teaching their preschoolers how to meditate. Sarah Ludwig Ross, the founder and director, felt that it was a foundational skill for good learning and living. The younger the meditator the more intuitive and integrated the practice becomes. All other subjects, activities, and interactions also benefit because the skills the young child learns by meditating are critical in learning to be attentive, focused, kind, and patient, lifelong learners.
Who are a few authors who have inspired your work or your writing practice?
Oh my, I’m now an elder of our tribe, so I’ve had so many teachers and muses and models!
If I start at the very beginning, I’d have to say that my first huge inspiration was a storybook that my auntie gave me in the Dominican Republic when I was growing up. I wasn’t much of a student (flunked every grade through 5th grade!) or a reader. In fact, I hated books. I wasn’t exposed to many books; reading is not an activity encouraged in a dictatorship; the few I encountered were boring: “approved” & censored propaganda texts–no thanks!
But I loved stories. The Dominican Republic back then was mostly an oral culture. Television was rare, radio and other media venues (papers, magazines) were under state control. But everyone told stories. Then, a wondrous text fell into my hands. An auntie who was a reader gave me a copy of The Arabian Nights. Oh my! First, I loved the girl on the cover: she had soft brown skin, dark hair (kind of like Raúl’s Rapunzel). In fact, she looked…Dominican! This amazing girl saved her life and the lives of all the girls in her kingdom by telling stories. That put a luminous little piece of information in my head: that stories have power. They can save your life! I wanted to be a storyteller just like Scheherazade.
When I arrived in the United States as a ten-year-old immigrant, I entered English. I felt unwelcome but I found a welcoming space inside the covers of books. I became a reader. I felt accompanied by the characters in stories and by the poets who wrote lines that reflected what I felt deep inside but didn’t yet have the language skills to say for myself. ack then, we didn’t have multicultural books, no Sandra Cisneros or Pat Mora or characters like the ones in my familia and culture. But I found soulmates in books like the Nancy Drew mysteries, Little Women. (Again, stories about plucky girls with agency and smarts.) As I gained more command of English, I devoured the novels of Jane Austen, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks. Poetry was my favorite genre. I think because its musicality reminded me of my mother tongue. Any poem I loved I learned by heart and would recite ad nauseum in the bedroom I shared with my sisters once the lights were off. Langston Hughes’s poem, “I, too,” gave me hope that someday I, too, might become a storyteller and be a part of the big table of American literature.
You have also written adult fiction, fiction for older children/teens, poetry, and nonfiction. What do you like most about writing across genres/age levels? Is there anything that stands out about writing picture books for young readers?
I know some of my writer friends think that writing for younger readers is “lite” writing. All I can say is: try writing a good book for young children! It’s hard! I often detect a slight tone of snobbery in this attitude: as if there’s a hierarchy of genres with books for young children at the bottom.
All good writing is hard work, and each genre teaches you skills you can transfer over. Everything you write, if you put in the time and effort to write it well, will teach you to be a better writer.
I have never been interested in borders, either geographical or cultural. We are all so very porous, and if anything, reading teaches us to become each other. So I don’t want to choose a genre “nationality,” and say, I only inhabit the country of adult fiction. Or, I’m a citizen of the greatest country on earth: Creative Nonfiction Nation. Heck, no! Give me my literary passport! I want to travel and learn.
And I do learn so much in writing for different ages and in different forms and genres. Writing picture books for young readers has helped me to be more efficient in my storytelling. No long passages of background or explanations or tangential asides. I have to go to the heart of the matter. Like writing haiku, every word has to count. Emily Dickinson could have been describing writing picture books when she wrote: “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,/ One clover, and a bee./ And revery.” I also find that in working on books for young children, my writing becomes more sensual, which is important. Lorca described the poet as “the professor of the five senses.” I think this is true of all good writing. A writer has to put you inside a world using only words, so the details have to be palpable, vivid, captivating. I also think children hear language very physically: they sway to a rhythm, they clap to a beat, they hop and skip and jump rope with rhymes! So the sound of the words matters a lot when writing for young readers—and that, too, is a good skill to bring into my books for adults.
What other books do you think Already a Butterfly is in conversation with? Are there any upcoming or published books you’d recommend?
There are books, not ostensibly about meditation, that inhabit the same universe as the one I would love to think my book belongs in. I already mentioned Raúl’s books, especially Imagine! Kate DiCamillo’s books are amazing. Each one a little gem. I love Jon J. Muth’s books, most especially The Three Questions, based on a Tolstoy story. Muth’s illustrations are wondrous and dreamy. Thich Nhat Hanh’s books for children about meditation are useful to any-age meditator. My favorites are actually books he wrote for adults in his How to Live: the Mindfulness Essentials Series, which include titles like How to Walk, How to See, How to Connect, How to Sit, How to Eat. My husband and I have read them over and over to each other. How to Fight and How to Love can be especially useful in a marriage or any relationship. The things you can learn that you thought you had already mastered! Thich Nhat Hahn slows down these simple but essential activities, coming down to the atom and essence and breath of how to live mindfully. My Mari learned a lot from him. Finally I have to give a HUGE shout-out to a fabulous former student, Corinna Luyken. Her books actually make me cry they are so beautifully written and illustrated. Two I especially love, The Book of Mistakes and My Heart. If my Mari could inhabit another book besides Already A Butterfly, I’d send her to visit one of Corinna’s, though I’d worry she’d never come back to her own.
What is one question that you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
This very question is the one I loved being asked! Why? First, it surprised me. And I love being surprised because that means I’m in a new landscape I haven’t been in before. That question opens up a space similar to the one that I enter when I meditate. I am present to the mystery and possibility is all around me. I also think a good question is not just an opportunity to discover something new but an invitation to discover answers together. It’s why meditating in a group can be so powerful. The presence of others strengthens your own practice and makes you feel accompanied, rather than isolated in your own self. So thank you for your question. I’ll remember to pass it on next time I’m at a gathering or in a classroom. Instead of asking someone for their name, or where they’re from or what they do, I’ll ask them, “What would you like me to ask you?” If nothing else, that will get their attention!
Julia Alvarez is the author of numerous bestselling and award-winning novels including How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of Butterflies, collections of poems, and works of nonfiction, as well as picture books. She has won the Pura Belpré Award, the Américas Award, the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature, and the National Medal of Arts.