By Anisa Lewis
Today we’re pleased to welcome NoNieqa Ramos to the WNDB blog to discuss picture book Beauty Woke, illustrated by Paola Escobar and released today, February 15, 2022!
Beauty Woke is a powerful story of pride and community, told with bold lyricism and the heart of a fairy tale. Readers looking for a next-generation Sleeping Beauty will fall in love with the vivid art and lyrical text. For fans of Woke Baby and Dreamers.
Beauty is a Puerto Rican girl loved and admired by her family and community. At first, she’s awake to their beauty, and her own—a proud Boricua of Taíno and African descent. But as she grows older, she sees how people who look like her are treated badly, and she forgets what makes her special. So her community bands together to help remind her of her beautiful heritage.
Could you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book Beauty Woke by walking us through the journey of the main character, Beauty?
Sure! Beauty is a beloved little girl, which in many ways is revolutionary because the blessing of the birth of BIPOC people was not something I ever saw celebrated in literature or in the media growing up. Rather, It was always associated with teenage pregnancy or other stereotypes and negativity. So, I opened the pages with the family singing because a beautiful baby was born. The book mirrors Sleeping Beauty, and just like in the fairytale, the whole family rejoices. Yet, there are dangers that lurk outside of the safety and love of Beauty’s family. In Beauty Woke, the doctor warns that there are going to be forces in the world that sentence Beauty to sleep and take her power. So, her parents have the house blessed and cleaned of negative energy, and Beauty’s abuelita is constantly reinforcing that she should be proud of who she is and of her cultural heritage.
This book is about the fact that we are all coping with wanting to protect our children—but there are always going to be dangers. When this happens to Beauty, she goes into a deep sleep because she is completely overwhelmed, and the hope is that her family and community rally around her.
Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
Part of the inspiration came from pride. I went back to my childhood and I tried to go to those roots of being taught that I should be proud of who I am despite anything school or society said about my appearance, hair, last name, or Puerto Rican heritage. I wanted to contribute to the growing canon of literature that tells children they should be proud of their mind, body, and soul because of who they are, not despite who they are; but because of what they look like and where they come from they are special, vital, and important.
Another part of the inspiration came from pain. I wrote [Beauty Woke] when Hurricane Maria was happening and devastated the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. I thought “I’m an adult and I’m completely overwhelmed by this, imagine what kids are feeling.” So in the book, Beauty is affected by this news. I did that to allow us to have the conversation about the mental health of young children—allowing them to talk about what they’re being affected by, allowing them to have a safe space where they can look into trusted books and say, “Yes, that’s what I’m feeling! And also, here is this author saying there’s so much more to who I am.” I wanted to have this book as an act of hope and healing, because I think when we acknowledge those things, we don’t hurt, but we tell people, “I hear you.”
You worked with illustrator Paola Escobar for this book. Can you take us through the working relationship between an author and illustrator? What was the synergy like between yourself and Paola?
I was already a huge fan of Paola’s so when presented with different people, I thought it was an incredible honor to collaborate with her. She’s an established, amazing, gifted illustrator! We communicated quite a bit, and in the beginning I sent a ton of research about the Puerto Rican culture for her to absorb.
Paola is a tremendously gifted person; her mood, setting, and the way she chooses color had nothing to do with me; that was all her! That’s her magic that she brings to every single project. But we did share research. I sent her pictures of the Puerto Rican day parades, the Bronx, flags, and all sorts of different things. And so the synergy came together and exemplified what I always tell people—“It’s always a conversation.”
We both wanted to exemplify complexity. How do you convey complexity best? Pride. You’re going to see flags in the book hung on the windows, and you could dig deeper and say, “Why is there a navy blue and a celestial blue?” “Why is that flag black?” We were thinking about the lens of Puerto Rican culture for everybody to talk about their own roots.
Your writing style is often described as lyrical and poetic. What about this form of expression are you most drawn to?
When you asked me this question, I almost started writing a poem!
Poetry is a community experience, it’s an invitation to be vulnerable, it’s a call-to-action, and it’s an explicable connection between the inner and the outer. When I was thinking about my audience, I wanted them to feel the textures of the words, I wanted them to hear an echo of their heart. I want the book to feel like an embrace.
When I write lyrically or poetically, I want to tap into the intention of a poem. I want to tap into the sensory experience of what it’s like to be in certain spaces, and communicate that to others. I think poetry is an incredible way to communicate what is unfamiliar, and to bring us together.
You have been described as a literary activist. Can you tell us what that means to you and how you might describe Beauty Woke as a form of literary activism?
So, to me books are bull horns, books are medicine, books are access. Beauty Woke is a form of literary activism because through the experience of Beauty, every child can feel validation.
Literary activism is putting your voice out there, finding voices to sing with you, and amplifying it. And also, literary activism is pointing everyone’s attention to who they need to listen to. Activism is saying, “now please go to these sources.” Books are a chamber where we can hear from each other.
What would you say to young readers who may be struggling with seeing the beauty in their own uniqueness?
I would say without question every child is beautiful and gifted. Some kids may not know that about themselves because of other forces that took away their natural entitlement to know they are beautiful and have gifts, and if that happens then we need to practice. Practice means that you are looking at yourself in the mirror and saying affirmations. Practice means you’re writing these things on paper, or drawing them. Practice means recording it and playing it back when you need it. I think that we need to learn to practice. Loving yourself is a real skill to learn and to remember when you’re having a tough time.
What do you hope your readers take away from Beauty Woke?
We need to march for justice, there’s no question about that, and that march can take many different forms for many different people. Sometimes it’s on the phone, sometimes it’s your sneakers on the street, sometimes it’s writing letters, sometimes it’s writing books. There’s so many different ways.
But, we also need to march in parades. We need to dance, we need to sing with joy, we need to raise our flags and raise our voices. We’re not only raising our voices to protest, we’re raising them sometimes to sing. There is room in our country and hearts to do this; to be safe and happy. We have to be brave enough to imagine that we can do this, and we have to be brave enough to let go of things that are not uplifting us.
I want my audience to know that we can celebrate each other and we can nurture each other. Marches are for justice, and marches are for joy.
Do you have any books to recommend for the readers of We Need Diverse Books?
Lasmusasbooks.com has a multitude of powerful LatinX voices. Hilda Burgos’ The Cot in the Living Room is about a young Dominican American girl in New York City. Her parents babysit children whose families work the overnight shift. Each night new kids sleep over and she has to give up her space. She learns to see things from a different perspective and moves from jealousy to empathy. Margaret Chiu Greanias’ Maximillian Villainous is a humorous take on following your heart. Her upcoming picture book Amah Faraway, about a child’s visit to a faraway grandmother and “how families connect and love across distance, language, and cultures,” is a Junior Library Guild Selection.