Las Cruces author Jennifer Cervantes is a rising star in young-adult fiction.
By Jeff Berg
Despite the fact that her first young adult novel, Tortilla Sun, is already in its second printing, Las Cruces author Jennifer Cervantes says her greatest reward from the book comes not from sales but from her young readers. "My favorite thing to do is to talk with the kids when I visit schools," she says. "Although most of the school visits have been in northern New Mexico, I have also been to Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and California. The kids will give me drawings of characters (from the book), and one student in San Antonio even wrote a short story and sent it to me."
Las Cruces author Jennifer Cervantes.
Cervantes laughs and adds, "And it was really good!"
Not that she has to worry about competition: Tortilla Sun was published by a major house, Chronicle Books, and earned positive reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal. Tortilla Sun won a "New Voices" award from the Association of Children's Booksellers, and is a finalist for the Cybils Awards, presented by a group of bloggers who write about children's and young-adult works.
But Jennifer Cervantes is almost an accidental author in the field of young adult fiction. The mother of three, she is also an instructor at NMSU and the wife of state Rep. Joseph Cervantes. Born and raised in San Diego, she earned a bachelor's degree in Communication Studies and a master's in Rhetoric and Communication Studies at UNM, where she also met her husband, an attorney by trade. They moved to Las Cruces in 1994.
Her youngest daughter was a catalyst for the book, when she asked if mommy would write a story about her stuffed bear. And, then chapter by chapter, Cervantes started to share the story — no longer about a stuffed bear at all — with critique friends online, some of whom strongly suggested she get an agent.
"Publishers are still buying a lot of manuscripts, but not publishing many, as they are not wanting to take too many risks," Cervantes says. "I never sat down to write a novel and I've never taken a class in creative writing, but I finished the first draft in about four months, did some revisions, and at one time, completely gutted the manuscript and started over. So, it was closer to a year before I took it to an agent."
An avid reader herself, Cervantes also saw a need for more Latino children's literature. "I found very little that was written for children or middle-grade kids, and even less that highlights the state. That became driving forces for the inception of the story."
In Tortilla Sun, 12-year-old Izzy is sent by her mother to spend a summer in New Mexico with her grandmother, who lives in a traditional New Mexican village. This gives the story a rich sense of the lifestyle of those who still live a more traditional, quiet and gently paced lifestyle.
Izzy is not pleased at first, and before she leaves for New Mexico, she finds an old baseball in a box of odds and ends that has "BECAUSE MAGIC" written on it. Her mother evades her questioning about the baseball, a possession of Izzy's deceased father. But Izzy, smart and very determined, is going to find out the "secret" of the ball, and much more along the way. She also learns about her traditional culture, a bit about the magic of place, and how to cook great food, and finds solace and a dash of young love with a local boy, Mateo.
Cervantes has even wisely included a glossary of the Spanish words that are sprinkled through the novel. An added bonus is a yummy-sounding recipe for Nana's Flour Tortillas, which play a small but important role in the story.
"Book sales show that children are still reading a ton," Cervantes says, "but of course it is the parents that are doing the buying. With today's technology, book sales have one more thing to compete against."
Although Cervantes admits to having a Kindle, she readily admits that she definitely prefers the feel of a real book in her hands. "People still want to feel the book," she says.
"I still read a lot of children's literature, and sometimes I am reading six books at a time. I never stop reading, and I really love that genre."
Of course her tastes go beyond children's lit, but she does try to read at least 25 books a year, along with critiquing manuscripts of fellow writers. A bit sheepishly she says that she has a foot-high pile of books beside her bed to read.
Cervantes suggests that children's literature is misunderstood as being simple. "Writers and children will see the surface value of a story, but it goes way past that," she says. "If adult readers analyze a text, they can see that it is a very layered story." She cites the wonderful children's Christmas book, The Polar Express, as an example.
Tortilla Sun is just such a work. It is a simple story of a young woman coming of age, but it also offers a deeper insight into how those changes affect her spirit and life, all blended with learning a whole new way of life in a place far away from her home in the city.
Smiling, Cervantes adds that she loves books that have happy and hopeful endings.
In the young-adult genre, Cervantes enjoys the work of Pam Munoz Ryan, Sharon Creech (to whose novels her own book has been compared) and Kate DiCamillo.
"I also like Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. It was published for the adult market, but didn't do well. But then it was promoted for young adults, where it has done very well and won some awards."
Cervantes reveals a bit of her "other" side, when she says that for adult fiction, she is a fan of sometimes-dark fantasist Neil Gaiman. "He's a genius. I like his dark macabre writings."
So, what next for her own writing? Cervantes is just now finishing up her second book, with the working title of Max of Thieves.
"It's set in a fictional town in Mexico where Max, who is descended from a long line of thieves, tends to the local graveyard. It centers on Dias de los Muertos."
But to find out more, you'll just have to wait and buy the book.
You can read more about Jennifer Cervantes, including a sample of Tortilla Sun, at her website, jennifercervantes.com
Senior writer Jeff Berg loves to eat tortillas
under the sun in Las Cruces.