When I was young I loooooved to watch TV. Cartoons were my favorite. Everyday after school and on weekends I was glued to the tube. My dad thought I was obsessed. He would yell at me to turn it off. He would punish me by not letting me to watch TV. My dad was bad. He would hide the cables from me when he left so that I wouldn’t watch TV. Not being able to watch TV forced me to find other things to do with my time. I made paper dolls, puppets, and a secret club with the kids from my neighborhood. I liked doing these projects because I got to make up stories and perform them for my friends. The first time I got a laugh I became hooked. I wanted to entertain.
What books influenced you most when you were growing up?
In high school I read BLESS ME ULTIMA, by Rudolfo Anaya. It was a wonderful book about a Mexican-American kid growing up in New Mexico. It was one of the first books I’d read with brown characters that looked and acted like me. What I remember most about the book is the back jacket cover. In the author biography, Mr. Anaya wrote that writing was a real hard task. He had to rewrite the book many times to get it right. This statement inspired me because although I loved making-up stories, I wasn’t the best speller in my class. This statement gave me permission to dream of one day becoming a writer myself.
What was your first job when you graduated from college?
My first job after graduating from college was teaching. I became a Spanish Bilingual K-1 teacher at a neighborhood elementary school in the Mission district of San Francisco. I loved this job because I got to play with the kids all day long. Woo hoo! We did drama, finger painting, sang songs.
How soon after that was your first book published?
My first novel was published seven years later.
When was it published?
Was your first book accepted immediately? or did you experience a number of rejections?
Before publishing my first novel, I had submitted many short stories. I must have sent out about thirty submission and only two stories were ever published over a span of two years. But that didn’t discourage me one bit. I knew that that was how it worked. Never did I imagine that I would publish a novel so quickly. I was actually very lucky. I submitted 30 pages of a story idea about a quinceanera from hell. And based on those pages I got a two-book deal from Simon & Schuster.
What are the topics are some of your books?
My books are about coming-of-age, cultural identity, and transitions.
Do you focus on fiction or nonfiction? Which do you prefer? Do you find one easier than the other?
I love fiction. I definitely prefer writing it because it’s easier for me to sit back and create crazy stories in my head. I used to lie a lot in school. I don’t know why I did it. But I never saw it as bad. I liked to call it creative exaggeration. Plus it was creativity sit-ups.
Where do you get your ideas?
I get my ideas mostly from my friends and family. Sometimes I’ll read an interesting article in the newspaper or overhear someone talking on the bus. Eavesdropping is a great way to find material. Anything that strikes me funny, I try to write down. I have this clay pot I bought in Mexico, where I keep my ideas. Even if I never end of using use them, I think it’s good to save those great titles, lines, or scenarios—because you just never know.
What gave you the idea for SOFI MENDOZA’S GUIDE TO GETTING LOST IN MEXICO?
I found this article in a Central Valley paper about two girls who’d voluntarily deported themselves to Mexico without knowing it. The girls had spent the majority of their lives in the US and were attending college in Los Angeles. They took a quick trip into Tijuana for some tacos and wound up unable to return to the US. This incident showed me the unfairness of US-Mexico foreign policy. However, what really angered me were the responses in the Letters to the Editor section. There were many hateful, racist, and ignorant letters written. There were requests to send all Mexicans back to Mexico. This lack of empathy for the immigrant experience is what provoked me to write my second novel.
Do you enjoy researching or do you prefer working totally from your imagination?
Setting and culture is very important to me. Maybe it’s because I studied cultural anthropology in college. For me, places are just as important as characters. Places have their own distinct culture. I love to do research. I don’t mind picking up and moving to a new place to try and capture its radiance. Plus it really bugs me when I read about a place I do know and it’s so totally obvious that the author has no idea what they’re talking about. Details are important. J
What are you working on now? When do you expect to start submitting it to publishers?
Right now, I am working on a middle school age book that takes place in San Francisco’s Mission district. I am very excited, because I will be writing about my hometown and about things that are very important to me i.e., school, community, and nature. I hope to submit it to my editors by the end of the year.
Do you like to include humor in your stories? Or adventure? Or mystery?
I like to incorporate all three. Humor is how I like to express myself. If you can make someone laugh (laugh so hard they pee in their pants), then you’ve done a good job. As a child I learned that humor is great way to inspire, teach, and entertain audiences. That lesson has stuck with me and influences my work today.
When you do school visits, what question do children ask you most?
How old am I? Am I married?
What do you most want the students to get out of your school visits?
I would loooove to inspire students to follow their dreams no matter how crazy they may seem. I like to think of myself as a role model. When I go into the schools many Latino students are shocked because I look like their sisters or aunts. It is very important for me to break stereotypes of what an author “should” look like. I tell the kids, “I because a writer, even though I wasn’t the best speller or writer in school.” I did it because I’m a hard worker. I never gave up. And you can do it too!”
Is there anything about yourself that you’d like to share - hobbies, where you were born, special talents other than writing/illustrating.
I was born in San Diego, California. I consider myself a frontera girl, because my identity is based on two cultures, two languages, and two borders. I am also an Aztec dancer and I love to talk to my plants.
What other jobs you had before you became a writer/illustrator?
Well, I’m a teacher (still substitute teaching whenever I can), I am a garden educator, I sell jewelry at the flea market on Sundays, and I write grants for Native American sustainable living training programs. I’m a busy gal.