more about star in the forest
Family and culture
Many little details in Star in the Forest come from experiences my immigrant friends or I have had. The real-life kids in the book's dedication live in Xono, Puebla - a formerly Nahuatl-speaking community where I spent time a few years ago. (Xono is an abbreviation for the village's name). At that time, their father had recently returned from nearly a decade of working in Colorado (coming home only for periodic visits). At various times, their mother and aunts and uncles and cousins have come to work here, too. My character Zitlally's memories of her village - picnicking at the spring, mushroom-hunting, venturing to the outhouse - are based on experiences I had in Xono or stories I heard there.
I've always felt special connections to trailers. As a child, I spent summer vacations in my grandparents' mobile home park, and I absolutely loved their home's musty smell, the warmth of the aluminum, the feel of its Astroturf, its delightful compactness.
Several years ago, before my first book was published, I worked in a mobile home park here in Fort Collins, Colorado, doing home visits with Spanish-speaking families in the community (helping them access resources for their young children). Since I've also taught many ESL students from this trailer park, and have friends who live there, it seemed natural to draw on this neighborhood for the setting of Star in the Forest.
(And of course, I can't help mentioning that I wrote this book inside the tiny vintage trailer that serves as my writing studio.)
Like Zitlally's father, a friend of mine was kidnapped while illegally crossing the border. I included some details from his own experience in Star in the Forest. After hearing his story, I couldn't stop imagining how terrified and powerless his relatives in Colorado must have felt when they got the phone call from the kidnappers. Kidnappings are not uncommon on the border, and many families have found themselves in the same scary situation as Zitlally's.
While living in southern Mexico, I was fascinated by stories of naguales, or animals who have a spiritual connection to humans. I enjoyed writing the tale at the end of Star in the Forest, inspired by bits and pieces of stories people told me. I hadn't originally included the tale (I'd only referred to it in Zitlally's story), but my editor asked for it, and in the end, I was so glad she did. It was fun using a third-person voice distinct from Zitlally's. And there's just something so emotionally satisfying about folktales!
Undocumented Immigration Controversy
When my editor also asked me to write a short piece summarizing the undocumented immigration controversy to include as an author's note , I said, "Sure, I can do that." Then, when I sat down to write it, I thought, Uh-oh! How on earth am I going to tackle this enormous, controversial issue in a reasonably objective and thorough way, at a level understandable to kids as young as seven?!!!
I took a deep breath and did research, took notes, and finally wrote and revised this section many times (with the help of my mom and some wonderful bilingual elementary school educators). I hope readers feel that I gave the issue fair treatment in a simple way. I tried really hard!
I believe that in order to form valid opinions about controversial situations (like undocumented immigration), it's essential to really imagine yourself in the shoes of all the people involved. Books are a great way to do this. When, as a reader, you become swept away in the feelings and thoughts and story of other people, it's impossible not to empathize with them. My hope is that once readers immerse themselves in Zitlally's story, they will think and act in a more compassionate and understanding way. At the core, we're all humans who love and hope and do the best we can.
I hope that young immigrants who read Star in the Forest feel inspired to value the knowledge, culture, and language(s) of their parents. They may not have legal documents enabling them to visit their native countries and return safely, but I hope they manage to find some meaningful connection to their roots.
Although my goal in writing this book was not political, I hope that readers come away from the book with more interest in the struggles faced by undocumented youth. If you'd like to find out more information about proposed legislation to provide a path to legalization for undocumented youth, please read about the DREAM Act.
My Writing Process
I wrote Star in the Forest while playing hooky from the book I was supposed to be writing at the time (The Indigo Notebook). I had a contract and tight deadline for The Indigo Notebook, but after hearing from the girl whose dad had been deported, I really wanted to write a story that reflected her reality. I knew that the responsible and logical thing to do would be to finish Indigo first, and then start the next book… but I just couldn't wait!
I felt, very strongly, that this was a story that needed to be told without delay. Many students I've met on school visits, kids in my community, and children of friends of mine have dealt with the emotional pain of a much-loved relative getting deported. I wanted to offer these kids a story that resonated with their own fears and triumphs. I also wanted their classmates, friends, teachers, and neighbors to have a chance to "walk in their shoes." I was afraid that if I put off writing the story, I might never get around to doing it.
So… I made a deal with myself: I'd write this book really really fast and then get back to work on Indigo. My creative, unconscious self was ecstatic about this, and met its end of the bargain. It (and the universe - thank you!) let the story flow out swiftly and effortlessly. It was one of those rare, precious instances where the story seemed to write itself. For hours on end I sat in my trailer, just writing and writing and writing, blissfully in the flow.
After two weeks, I had a draft that I let my mom see. After she read it, she went so far as to say that it was her favorite book I'd written. She suggested minor tweaking, and encouraged me to hand it over to my agent. So, I took a deep breath and mentioned (a little guiltily) to my agent that, um, I'd kinda sorta written this other book while I was supposed to be writing Indigo. She didn't chide me. Instead, she sent it right along to my editor. Not long after that, my editor offered me a contract. It happened so fast… and so painlessly compared to the years that my other novels have taken me to write!
In all fairness (lest you think it's easy to whip off a novel in a fortnight), I must tell you that the main elements of this story had been brewing in my unconscious for many years. Back before my first book was published, I wrote a short story about a Mexican girl who had recently come to live in the U.S. with her parents, who were undocumented immigrants. When she missed her village in Mexico, she would find refuge in the secret car part "forest" behind her trailer. There, she bonded with a stray dog and a girl from her school.
Over the years, I would pull out the story and fiddle with it, but I felt that some big piece was missing. I just couldn't figure out what. Finally, when I heard from the real-life girl whose dad had recently been deported, I realized that this was the heart of the story. For years, I'd known its framework, and all I had to do was weave in this final, yet essential, element.
I can't thank my immigrant friends enough for their inspiration and encouragement and help with this story. Gloria and family, Javier and family, and all the other immigrants and their families who have come into my life as students and readers and friends… GRACIAS!!!!