The Best Compliment of an Author’s Career?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 3rd, 2020
Pam Muñoz Ryan laughs with an audience member (who happens to be fellow MG author Lindsey Stoddard)

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While it’s hard to think about much else besides Super Tuesday this morning, plus coronavirus prep (retail = lots and lots of wipes for surfaces and hand sanitizer for credit card and cash handling), we are still aglow from a lovely visit on Sunday from the brilliant and (in the words of one of my staffers) ‘badass’ author, Pam Muñoz Ryan.

It was a gorgeous day, and we had popped into the bookstore before the offsite event. While there, Pam graciously signed a copy of Esperanza Rising for a customer who had come in to show us his 17-year-old daughter’s self-published picture book. We mentioned that we had a bona fide superstar in the store, and the dad lit up as he told us that he’d read Esperanza to his daughter years ago and they’d loved it. (While that was a happy moment, it isn’t the one this blog post title promises.)

A trio of nicely dressed 20-somethings (Vermont is an extremely casual state, so snappy attire really stands out) were also browsing nearby, and when I mentioned that we had the pleasure of a famous author visiting today, they said, “We know! That’s what we’re here for!” It was more than an hour before the event and they had driven a couple of hours to get to us. Their enthusiasm was an auspicious and delightful start to the day.

Over at the library, we set up for the event, while Newbery Honor author Muñoz Ryan graciously allowed that my dog was second in cuteness only to hers, and we welcomed people into the sunny community room with the fireplace. The 20-somethings were first to arrive, and had a chance to chat with their author idol. It turned out that the two young women were twin sisters, and they shyly mentioned having read Becoming Naomi León at least 20 times while growing up.

The author talk was perfect — lively, interesting, personal, and thoughtful, with lots of fascinating details and backstory about the books, all those tidbits we love to hear that go behind the scenes of an author’s experience and process and discovery. The pacing of the event was perfect; Pam Muñoz Ryan is a pro, so interesting and also concise. She told us afterward that one young reader on a book tour in another city had waited a long time in the signing line and, as he plopped down his book for an autograph, said, “You did a good job! The last guy we came to see went on FOR.EV.ER,” his mom nodding in agreement behind him. (Note to authors: a suitable brevity and liveliness are greatly appreciated by even the staunchest fans!)

Muñoz Ryan’s new book, Mañanaland, is a quest story and a fable, full of the kind of warmth and heart and big questions addressed and true empathy for young readers that the best middle grade books offer. It’s as slim as the fabulous Echo (her last book) is thick, and also rich with love and longing. This story about a boy’s dive into a legend involving sheltering and aiding people fleeing from an oppressive regime was written years before the current-day events of walls and cages, but its almost fairy-tale quality has real-life resonance even the author couldn’t have predicted.

Because Mañanaland hadn’t officially released before the event, readers hadn’t had a chance to read it yet, so most of the questions were about previous titles and author experiences. Our staffer Emily asked, “You have won so many amazing awards. Is there one honor in particular that stands out?” I was expecting to hear about the Newbery Honor for Echo, or the nomination for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, or the two Pura Belpré gold medals, but I was wrong. When the Bush administration held a breakfast for authors, and invited her, Pam Muñoz Ryan got to bring her mother to the White House. As a blue-collar family, this was something they never would have imagined in their wildest dreams, she said, and that was an experience she will always be grateful for.

At one point in the Q&A, Pam Muñoz Ryan turned to point out one of the twins. “We have an expert on Becoming Naomi León in the audience,” she said. “Having read it 20 times, she probably knows more than I do about the book!” A bit later on, another audience member—a terrific regular bookstore customer who takes great care with the books she gives her grandchildren—raised her hand. “I have a question for the young woman, if I may,” she said. “What was it about that book that drew you back to it again and again?”

There was a pause as the sister gathered her thoughts. Then she said, “My sister and I were raised by our grandparents, and the relationship between Naomi León and her great-grandmother was so special. I had never read a book with a family structure like ours.

That book make me feel seen for the first time.”

Pam Muñoz Ryan with lifelong fans.

(While I’ve tried to present her response as accurately as possible, I can’t convey the beauty of how she articulated it.) The whole audience was so moved by her words, we all were dabbing our eyes. It was the most beautiful moment, a testament to the power of books in children’s lives. This is why it’s necessary to give ALL children visions of themselves in stories, why we owe them the richness of their worlds reflected back to them and shared with others.

As an author, I don’t think you could hear a more meaningful compliment. To create a safe and welcoming space for a young reader, to validate the differences in their lives, to offer hope and acceptance and understanding — that is, to my mind, the highest calling of children’s literature. That’s a career mic drop, in my opinion.

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