Emma Otheguy on the Delicate Dance of Storytelling for Kids

Emma Otheguy speaks to SLJ about immigration, racism, and how ballet informs her craft in her latest title, Sofía Acosta Makes a Scene.

In Sofía Acosta Makes a Scene (Knopf, Jan 2022), Cuban American Sofía knows there's a place for her in her ballet-loving family, even if it's not center stage. But when an incident with a friend exposes their underlying racism and xenophobia, Sofía starts to wonder if she belongs in her very own neighborhood. Emma Otheguy speaks to SLJ about immigration, racism, and how ballet informs her craft in her latest title.

Photo by Konrad Brattke

Before becoming an author, one of your professions was being a Spanish teacher to elementary school children. Throughout Sofía Acosta Makes a Scene, you weave Spanish into the dialogue. Why was that important to include?  

Like tens of millions of people in the United States and 16% of school-age children, Sofía Acosta speaks Spanish in her home. Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the United States, and we have a larger number of Spanish speakers than most Latin American countries. Despite these facts, I frequently meet students during school and library visits who feel othered because they are Spanish speakers. I hope that seeing Spanish reflected in the book will broaden our understanding of what a typical American family sounds like. 

Sofía’s family is a “ballet family,” and The Nutcracker is very important to both them and the plot. Sofía learns that she can still be part of her family without her life revolving around ballet, and discovers a talent for costumery. When you were a child, were ballet or sewing a part of your life? 

I did a lot of ballet when I was a kid, and I identify with Sofía’s struggles to stay on the music and follow cues. I also identify with her love of the drama of ballet and how sets, costumes, music, and dancing work together to immerse us in an experience. I learned a lot about storytelling from watching American Ballet Theatre over the years: writing skills like how emotions are conveyed through the body, how to pace a story, and how to build to exciting moments are beautifully articulated in the great story ballets.

Sofía is Cuban American, and immigration is an important theme throughout. What inspired you to make that a touchstone of this novel?

I have always felt a particular kinship with other children of immigrants, particularly when it comes to the pressure many of us feel to make our parents’ struggles worthwhile (and, of course, funny stories about things our parents do). That position fuels how Sofía relates to every aspect of her life: it’s why she tries so hard in ballet despite not being very good at it, it’s why she sticks up for her brother and sister even when she’s jealous of them, and it’s why she ultimately becomes an activist.  

Read More: Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed: 15 Voices from the Latinx Diaspora Review

Sofía and some of her friends find themselves excluded from a Country Club based on race and social status. How did you approach this topic for young readers? What do you think middle graders can do to make a change in these areas?

Sofía notices that racism and classism are often justified as being good for kids. Parents are famous for saying, “I just want what’s best for my kids” (and we do)! But exclusive institutions and communities often harm children by denying them social and educational opportunities, making them feel left out, and making the kids who do have access feel that they have to earn their belonging when they see that not everyone is welcome. Kids can make adults aware of how they are actually impacted, and challenge the misconception that exclusion is justified when it’s for the (alleged) benefit of children.  

Mr. Fallon immigrated from Ireland and becomes a U.S. citizen in this story. But it is often harder for Cuban/Latin immigrants than those from other countries. What do you want readers to know about immigration inequity in America?

From the very beginning, immigration policies in this country have been tied to race, and that problem persists to this day. Sofía learns about the history of immigration, from the quota system to the present, and realizes how heavily immigrants from Europe were favored. She also notices that people’s perception of European immigrants are often more positive than their perception of immigrants from other parts of the world, and the racism implicit in those views. I think that Sofía Acosta Makes a Scene would pair really well with a fourth or fifth grade immigration unit as kids explore the complexity of our immigration history and how it impacts one young Latina’s family.   

Sofía speaks often about her family ‘accordion’—her family grows bigger to accommodate friends and family, and shrinks when they leave. She also recognizes her mother helping others by giving them a place to stay, donating to the church, and always having snacks on hand. Did this metaphor come from your own experiences, and have you continued this tradition with your own family?

It's a running joke in my family that my mom’s apartment operates as an unofficial bed and breakfast (plus lunch, dinner, and all the snacks you can find). When I was growing up, our house was always full of short- and long-term visitors. We truly had an astronomical volume of houseguests. I’m glad that my mom has recently gotten a little bit of a break from hosting, since I worry that she doesn’t get enough rest, but what I learned from that experience was that everyone has a story to tell. Listening to the personal stories of friends and family from different parts of Latin America was a true education, and a gift.  

What do you hope readers will take away from Sofía’s story?

I hope first and foremost that readers will feel that they have made a friend: Sofía is funny and big-hearted, and I want kids to feel that they have been welcomed right into her family. Second, I hope they will learn about social issues like immigration and housing. Finally, I hope Sofía is an example of what it means to hold true to your own opinions and preferences, as Sofía does with everything from ballet to costumes to activism.

You’ve written books in different styles, including verse (Marti's Song for Freedom) and for both younger and middle grade readers. Do you have a favorite audience or writing style? Are there different genres you wish to try, or new target audiences you might write for in the future?

I am endlessly fascinated by children’s books, and particularly how the formats of books intersect with the story that is told. Each offers slightly different restrictions and opportunities, like how the form of a poem shapes and limits the writer of a haiku or a sonnet. I adore the dance between the words and the illustrations in a picture book, and I also love how middle grade novels allow me to dive fully into a world. There are lots of other formats and genres I’m eager to explore. I am especially fond of chapter books with their fun line drawings and wrapped text, and hope I’ll get to write a chapter book series someday.

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