Ten writers for children. All with something to say.
An interview with Carmen T. Bernier-Grand
Last February while traveling in Oregon, I had the privilege of meeting fellow spud, Carmen, face to face. We found each other in the Portland, Oregon public library and walked a few blocks in the rain to a small cafe, where we shared conversation over coffee and pie. A year later, I was excited to "draw" Carmen's name for this interview and to learn even more about this charming, diminutive woman, brimming with personality!
1. I understand you have a background in math. Did you find the switch to writing difficult, or did you always know you would be a writer?
I didn’t know I was a writer, but everything indicates that I was. I was always making up stories; I stared at people, and pretended to be inside their heads; and I made up my own stories using the illustrations in comic books.
2. English is a second language for you. At what age did you learn English, and now is it natural for you to think and write in English? Are your books also released in Spanish?
In eighth grade I went to a private school with American nuns as teachers. When I said some words in English my classmates laughed, so I tried hard not to speak the language. It wasn’t until I met my husband at the University of Connecticut when I began to speak it without so much fear.
When writing the first draft of a story, my feelings come out better in English than in Spanish. I think, speak, read, write, and dream in both languages. I write in English first, then translate. Both César: ¡Sí, se puede! Yes We Can and Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court Justice have a version in English and a version in Spanish.
3. Your books have won numerous awards, including several Pura Belpre Honors. What are you most proud of?
The best award is to have readers.
4. Tell us about your most interesting research process/trip.
I do as much research from home as I can. Then I write the first drafts. When I have enough questions, I go on site. For César I didn’t travel far because Oregon has many farm workers. For Frida I visited Mexico City; for Diego I visited Guanajuato, Mexico; for Sonia Sotomayor I visited Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.; for Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina (Illustrated by Raúl Colón, Fall 2011) I visited Cuba and met her; and lately, for Pablo Picasso (Illustrated by David Diaz, 2012) I visited Southern France and Spain and met his grandson Bernard Ruiz-Picasso.
5. I understand you teach at the Whidbey Island MFA Program. Can you tell us a little about the program and your teaching experience?
It is a low-residency writing program, meaning that students and faculty get together at Captain Whidbey Inn for a ten-day residency in August and another ten-day residency in January, and the rest of the semester is online. The residencies offer afternoon presentations by well-known authors, storytellers, agents, and editors.
Bonny Becker and I teach the courses for students interested in writing for children and young adult. But the beauty of this program is that students are required to enroll in classes out of their genre. For writers of books for children and young adults this is ideal because the skills to write poetry, nonfiction, short fiction, and memoir are needed to write for young readers.
6. I am so interested in the fact that both FRIDA: LONG LIVE LIFE and DIEGO: BIGGER THAN LIFE are written in free verse. When I finished reading them, I felt as if I knew far more than the basic facts about their lives. I felt as if I knew their souls. Are all your books written in verse? How did you make the decision to write in poetry, rather than in prose?
Thanks you for your kind words.
I don’t call myself a poet. Other people do. If what I write is free verse, then I must say that free verse chose me. When I was writing César that was the format his story came to me.
My novel, In the Shade of the Níspero Tree and my first biography, Poet and Politician of Puerto Rico: Don Luis Muñoz Marín were written in prose. My six biographies with Marshall Cavendish are in free verse. But Virgen de Guadalupe (2012) is in prose.
7. What are you working on now? Will it be written in prose or verse?
I have a novel in mind. I don’t know what format it wants to be yet.
8. And one last question: What does the "T" in your name stand for?
(This said by someone who stands all of 4 feet, 9 inches.) Gracias, Carmen!