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Ernesto Cisneros talks about becoming an author and winning the Pura Belpré award

Ernesto Cisneros won the 2021 Pura Belpré Children’s Author award with his debut novel.
Ernesto Cisneros won the 2021 Pura Belpré Children’s Author award with his debut novel “Efrén Divided.”
(Courtesy of Andre Martinez)

Ernesto Cisneros suspected he was in trouble when his editor reached out to set up a meeting last week. He hadn’t completed the edits to his second book yet. When he logged in and saw about 10 people in the meeting, he thought it might have been an author intervention.

Instead he was notified — a day before it was publicly announced — that he won the Pura Belpré Children’s Author award with his debut novel “Efrén Divided,” released in March 2020.

Cisneros, 47, is still struggling to let the reality that he is a published author sink in, let alone that after 14 years of struggling to get published his debut novel has won awards.

“I started doubting that it was ever going to happen,” Cisneros said. “Going from not being able to sell my work to suddenly winning one of the most prestigious awards that there is, especially as a Latino, that just means everything to me. What I’m most proud of is not so much winning as an author but winning as a son.”

The award is validating for his parents, whom he dedicated the book to. His sister watched the announcement live and turned to their father to say “¿Ya vez? Valió la pena” or “You see? It was worth it,” referring to their parents’ sacrifices in leaving Mexico to pursue the American dream.

One of the perks is receiving congratulatory messages and being able to connect as peers with authors Cisneros read and studied like Carlos Hernandez and Meg Medina. Students who Cisneros taught about 10 to 15 years ago are reaching out too. One student in particular said he had never cried reading a book but “Efrén Divided” felt as though Cisneros had been writing about his own family.

The book follows 12-year-old Efrén Nava as his life changes when his mother is deported to Mexico. He becomes responsible for his siblings as his father takes on a second job and is determined to reunite with his mother.

Cisnernos started writing the book during the 2016 election and was inspired by some of the deportation experiences of the middle school students he teaches at Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana.

After a day of teaching virtually from his makeshift closet-office, Cisneros talks about growing up in Santa Ana, what kept him motivated to write and his upcoming second novel in this edited interview.

How did you become interested in reading and writing?
I did enjoy reading as a child. I’m not sure exactly why but my teachers stopped taking me to the library so I just stopped reading. English was my second language and there was a little bit of a separation as far as access and the way that we were taught.

I remember not being able to play with the wooden kitchen sets, we never got the computers and we weren’t taken to the library. I didn’t know how to go seek out the books and also I didn’t see myself in books. I’m kind of embarrassed to say this but in middle school I don’t think I picked up a single book. It wasn’t until I got called out by a teacher in high school. I’m always giving her credit — Sharon Saxton. She said the nicest thing to me that I wasn’t dumb. I was just lazy. She actually cared enough to tell me that.

As far as writing, I was always a daydreamer. Instead of paying attention in class, I was making up stories. That was always true of my entire life. I thought something was wrong with me but it was just my imagination. I never really thought that writing books was something I could do. When I became a teacher, I started sharing some of my stories with the students and they really seemed to enjoy them and encouraged me to pursue this. I thought it would be an excellent adventure.

What was it like to start writing?
I had lost a lot of time, and there were a lot of gaps in my learning. When I became serious about it, I knew that I had to fill in those gaps. I started reading everything that I could. One of the books that I connected with for the first time was K. L. Going’s “Fat Kid Rules the World.”

It was the first time that I had read a YA book with a voice that really called to me. It wasn’t very poetic. It didn’t have fancy language. It was very simple, just like spoken word. I found it to be moving, powerful and amazing. It was the first time that I thought this is similar to what I write. That’s when I was really motivated to try and publish my work.

What kind of work goes into publishing a book?
I had to explore what my voice was. I went back and I got my master’s degree in creative writing. I also realized that I didn’t understand grammar very well. So I needed to teach myself grammar. Not just the rules but actually how to apply it and how to use it effectively. It takes a long time to really hone your craft but it was exciting. Every time I learned something, I was able to share it with my students. That was the key. The harder I worked for the students, the further along I got.

I also joined [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators]. It’s a nonprofit organization that helps children’s authors. I became a volunteer and joined a critique group. I’m still with the same group. We foster friendships and encourage each other. The children’s publishing industry seems to be really supportive of each other. It’s almost like we don’t really compete.

“Efrén Divided” is about a 12-year-old boy whose world changes when his mother is deported to Mexico.
“Efrén Divided” is about a 12-year-old boy whose world changes when his mother is deported to Mexico.
(Courtesy of Ernesto Cisneros)

After struggling to get published for about 14 years, what motivated you to keep writing?
The first thing that kept me going all these years is that I’ve felt like a failure. When I was in high school, I was already working full-time hours. During college, it was the same thing. At some point, I had two jobs to pay for school. I never knew what I could have done if I hadn’t had to work so much. I felt like all my life, I’ve never really known what my potential was. I was just tired of failing.

I was a big fan of Kobe Bryant, and he would talk about Mamba mentality — taking that last shot, how he spent time practicing more than anybody else on the team. When I was working on this book, that’s the same mentality I was trying to focus on. I could see the people who really want this dream. Right now, they’re getting up and they’re probably just as tired as I am. But they’re writing or they’re gonna stay up late.

“Efrén Divided” was written sometimes in the morning, sometimes at night. I couldn’t keep that up for too long so mostly it was during nutrition, lunch and after school. I wanted to leave the classroom and go home, but I knew that I had a little window before I had to pick up my kids from school.

The other part was the students. They knew that I was writing and what I was trying to do. There were some kids that also wanted to write and we would challenge each other. They’d ask, “Mr. C, how many pages did you write? I wrote four pages.” I’d be like, “Oh, I only did three.” Next week, I would try to up them. Most of the time they’d beat me, which was impressive. I had one student who wrote about 70 pages one year. I knew that my students were watching and I didn’t want them to see me quit.

And that goes for my kids here at home too. I remember my dad leaving at 4:30 in the morning to go to work. My mom would always be working between 70 and 80 hours in a factory ironing. Then she’d come home, and she still would feed us and iron our clothes. When you see people working that hard and then think about myself just sitting at a desk — I had absolutely no right to complain.

What are you working on next?
I’m thinking about what I want to leave behind. I have two kids, and I want them to feel free to dream as big as they want. They can become doctors, lawyers, authors, artists, photographers, anything. I never allowed myself to do that and that’s one regret I have for myself. I definitely want to work on getting rid of the sense of disentitlement that exists, especially for kids of color.

I finished my second book, it’s called “Falling Short.” Right now, I’m working on those edits. It’s not going to be out until early 2022. It’s about two best friends trying to help each other become the best versions of themselves. One is very athletic and he feels that he’s the cause of his parents getting a separation. The other one is very scholarly and his father isn’t in his life. He feels that if he became more athletic, like his father, that he would come back to him. It’s about friendship and being true to yourself.

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