Recently I had the great joy of reading Colors of the Wind by J.L. Powers. Even more recently, I had the chance to do an interview with her! (I just can’t get enough interviews these days!)
1. How did you find out about George Mendoza? When did you first meet in person?
I met George a dozen years ago when I was asked to write a feature story about his life as an artist. I had no idea what I was getting into—and I suppose that’s a good thing. I have to be honest and say that I’d never thought a lot about what it was like to be blind before I met him, except to sort of assume that it was like being in the dark and then to realize that this couldn’t be exactly true either. But when I heard him describe that being blind, for him, meant seeing things that weren’t there—floating eyes, brilliant sunbursts, squiggly colors flashing by—and also like looking into a kaleidoscope, with images multiplied and reflected back, I was fascinated. The artwork speaks for itself but when you know the story behind the artwork, it’s even more amazing.
2. Did you do much research to tell George’s story, or did you let him tell his story to you?
George told me his story, several times, on different occasions and I kept getting more detail over time. We were initially working on a glossy, coffee-table style artbook, but couldn’t sell the concept to any publisher. Admittedly, it took me awhile to put two and two together and realize that this would make an amazing picture book, but finally I did, and here we are.
3. You have written award-winning novels for young adults and you’ve edited two collections of essays. What made you decide to branch out into the picture book arena?
I’ve always loved picture books but it’s an astonishingly difficult genre to write and to break into. George’s story seemed perfect for it—a story of perseverance, a story where his disability becomes the literal source of inspiration for him as an artist.
It is clearly a picture book but I’ve had several high school librarians tell me that this is also a good book for reluctant readers at the middle-grade to high-school level because it isn’t a cutesy story and it doesn’t have illustrations that are clearly aimed at the younger crowd. So it seems like a picture book for all ages, if that’s possible.
I have 3 young adult novels, though one of them (Amina) is currently only available in Australia.
The Confessional, my first novel, is a gritty novel about a young man getting murdered and it explores the problem of violence among young men and their friends. I’d recommend you wait until your daughter is late teens just because it is so gritty. But that all depends on the kid, right? It explores important questions about friendship and loyalty and faith so there’s lots to talk about when you do read it.
This Thing Called the Future is a great novel for 12 & up, an entertaining read about a young woman growing up in post-apartheid South Africa. Just as Khosi starts falling in love for the first time, a loved one starts dying of a mysterious disease, a witch curses her family, and she is being stalked by a man with shape-shifting powers. The book deals with the HIV-AIDS epidemic as well as the very real problem of young girls being preyed upon by older men, and it introduces American readers to the clash between traditional Zulu culture and the so-called modern world.
Amina is for 10-14 year olds, if you can get ahold of a copy here in the U.S. It tells the story of a young girl, Amina, an artist growing up in Mogadishu, Somalia. Her father is taken captive by al-Shabaab, and her brother is abducted to be a soldier. She is left to fend for her pregnant and ill mother and her elderly grandmother in a dangerous, violent city where young women are vulnerable. Will her artwork save her—or be her demise?
I would recommend Amina to start with (again, if you can find it—it just came out last year but isn’t available in the U.S.), then This Thing Called the Future, and last, The Confessional.
5. Will you and George work together to tell more stories? (We love his illustrations and your storytelling and would love to see more.)
Well, that’s an interesting idea, one I hadn’t really thought of. This book really required the publisher to have a vision for using George’s paintings as the main illustrations, so I’m grateful that Jill, our editor at Purple House Press, had that vision. I’ll have to explore the possibility, obviously with George. Thanks for the idea!
6. Colors of the Wind doesn’t just feature your writing and George’s paintings, there are also drawings by Hayley Morgan-Sanders. Did you work closely with Sanders as well, or was she hired separately by the publishing company?
She was hired separately by the publishing company. It worked out well, didn’t it? I’m grateful for Jill’s hard work designing this book as well; she did a fabulous job.
7. I review children’s books and conduct interviews with my three year old daughter. She wants to know how a female author could write about a man’s life so well. (She is convinced that you must be a man because the story is about George and he is a man!)
My first novel, The Confessional, was first-person view point multiple narrators, all young men. I spent lots of time observing young men to write that. My second novel, This Thing Called the Future, features a young modern South African woman as the protagonist. And my third, Amina, features a young modern Somalian woman as the protagonist. So far, none of my novels have featured protagonists exactly like me—a white woman who grew up as a minority in a blue-collar Mexican and Mexican-American neighborhood along the U.S.-Mexico Border. It’s not that I’m uninterested in my own story, only that I have had compelling stories I wanted to tell about people who are not exactly like me and I believe that any novelist can and must explore the lives and stories of people who are, in some way, different than themselves. But often, it turns out that our differences are more surface than people think—but we focus on those surface differences until they seem really important. So I guess in the end, I feel like I write about people, and since I’m a person, I’m writing about people who are basically similar to me. Having said all that, I am a very careful researcher; I invest a lot of time and money into travel, friendships, and research so that I can write with as much accuracy and authenticity as possible. And I always have people from the group in question read and vet my manuscripts for possible errors. If one of them says there is a problem, no matter how minor or how major, I change it.
8. In your bio it says you teach English at Skyline College in California. Has teaching English helped you write better, or hindered your ability to produce more work?
Teaching writing and literature has helped me become more intelligent about how the writing process works and to talk about the elements of any kind of written work. This, in turn, has definitely made me a better writer. I used to write and sort of hope everything would come together. I didn’t understand the elements of a story and I really really didn’t understand the process of revision. I was afraid to truly change things because I was afraid I would ruin things. Now I just go at it. Nothing is sacred. Teaching definitely did that for me. Being able to see the problems in another person’s writing allows you to begin to see the problems in your own.
We did two events in El Paso, Texas and one in Las Cruces, New Mexico, all with children in attendance who did artwork after the event. It was great fun. We have an upcoming event in September in Santa Ana, California and I hope we have a good showing there. We haven’t YET gone into schools but I hope this book will lead the way.
10. What is one thing you’d like your readers and fans to know about you?
I travel as much as possible. The world is a fascinating place. Travel expands your ability to understand other people, to love the world, and to see how complex problems are so that you can never again offer facile solutions to the problems that plague the world. Literature—from picture books to novels—is a form of travel without ever leaving the safety of your own home. So encourage reading for people of all ages, and encourage people to read as much and as widely as possible!