The Backstory: THE LITTLE HOUSE OF HOPE
After a few weeks off, The Backstory has returned and is thrilled to welcome Terry Catasús Jennings and her most recent book, THE LITTLE HOUSE OF HOPE (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2022) with illustrations by Raúl Colón. Read on to learn all about the story behind the story and for your chance to win a copy.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind THE LITTLE HOUSE OF HOPE.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
Andrew, first thank you for having me on The Backstory. I am delighted to be here. My story begins in Cuba, I was born there. I came to the United States not long after my father was jailed by the Castro government. We were unbelievably lucky that he was freed. You know, when he was freed, we applied to many countries, we just had to leave Cuba because he was no longer safe. The United States was the first country that said yes and we bought our plane tickets and came. I was twelve years old at the time, and I knew no English.
I always wanted to write, but a teacher in a creative writing class in high school told the whole class that I must have used the Thesaurus, (as if that were a bad thing) because, being Cuban, I couldn’t have known a word I used in an essay. I actually knew that word–it was strident–because it translated directly from Spanish. I got mad, took myself out of her class and never looked back. My aim at the time was to figure out if I could actually write well enough to make it a career, but I never did that. I majored in Math instead. Having said that, it’s very possible that even if I had figured out I could write, I wouldn’t have pursued it as a career–immigrants need jobs that are secure and can put food on the table. Writing is not that secure.
But stories always rolled around in my head and when I began to have some free time, in my fifties, I began to write. Again, I was trying to figure out if I could do this. So I started with work for hire, and then a humor column for my local newspaper. Then some science based picture books. Then finally, in 2019 things began happening for me in the fiction arena. My Definitely Dominguita series debuted in 2021, it’s a chapter book series. Pauli Murray, the Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist, a biography in verse, came out this last February. I co-authored that with Rosita Stevens-Holsey, Pauli Murray’s niece. The Little House of Hope came out a few weeks ago. It’s illustrated by Raúl Colón.
Terry, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. I know so many readers will connect with the feelings of doubt you relayed. Most importantly though, I hope they connect with your passion and perseverance to find your way back to writing. Clearly, it is where you are meant to be.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
This story is a hard one. A friend who is a realtor told me that he never rents to immigrants because they live four families to a house and always trash the places they rent. How could he say that in front of me? He knew I am Cuban. What a horrible generalization. At first, Andrew, I was just angered by the generalization, but I couldn’t let it go. Pretty soon, I had a lightning bolt. Wait! We were one of those families. Really. Three families lived in the first house where we came. One family lived in the garage. But we didn’t trash the house. And we all became citizens. And we are all contributing members of our communities. So I had to write the book to set the record straight. I wanted to show some of the reasons why immigrants have to leave their home and come to a new country. I had to show how difficult it is to leave everything behind and re-start life with just about nothing but the clothes on your back. That’s what happened to my family and I hoped that I could create empathy and understanding.
I am appalled that someone would say that to you but grateful that it led to the creation of this book. What a service you are doing to educate families while providing a lens through which children in similar situations can see themselves in a positive light.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now THE LITTLE HOUSE OF HOPE? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
I had to write it immediately, Andrew. And I did. It didn’t take me very long at all. At first the house was the center of the story. Many families lived in it, got jobs, saved a little money, moved on to bigger things. It didn’t take many writer group meetings before there was a single family. I actually had a meanie American family who complained about too many families living together and too many cars on the street at one point, but my husband and my writer group dissuaded me from that thread. It was one of those things that went quickly to my agent, she turned it around quickly and Neal Porter expressed interest a couple of hours after she sent it out. We had an offer in two weeks.
Whoa! What a timeline! In a world where publishing moves at a snail's pace, this was lightning quick. I often find that it is those stories that pour out of you that are just meant to be. Usually, they are packed with emotion or a strong personal connection and when it happens it is magic.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
It’s always like that story. Something happens, or I have a memory which sparks a framework that leads to a book. Right now I am working on one of my aunts’ memories. She always spoke of a day her family took a watermelon on a train to visit her grandfather. And the watermelon broke. That one has gone through a few iterations, but I think it’s almost ready to go. I also had an experience with my grandkids, who want the moon, but we can’t give it to them, but we find something else to make them happy. For non-fiction, it’s finding a worthy subject, and then sitting down to do the hard work of researching and figuring out if it is a story I can tell in an engaging manner.
I love both of these ideas! And I will forever be in awe of nonfiction writers and the research and creativity that goes into presenting factual information in new and interesting ways.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
Oh Andrew. I go to school on so many books. It’s not like I can point to one. Whenever I am about to write something, I look for books that have done something similar to what I’m trying to accomplish. I read many, many series, chapter book and full middle grade to distill what makes a series good. I read many funny picture books to figure out how to write a funny picture book. My agent is a big proponent of the Hero’s Journey. That one has stuck with me, and not just because she likes it. It makes sense to me.
While I worked on my biography in verse, I read Joy McCullough’s Blood, Water, Paint and Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes. Many times. I’m working on a novel in verse and I have I read and re-read Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhà Lai, I’ve read Margarita Engle and Padma Venkatraman, many of their books. I went to school on Alone by Mean Freeman. This particular book I’m working on takes place around the Cuban revolution, so I also read and re-read The War that Saved my Life and The Book Thief. Both of these books are prose, but they are both child-centered stories taking place while their world is at war.
Your use of mentor texts is amazing! Immersing ourselves in the types of books we hope to create is such a learning experience that helps us identify what does and does not resonate with us as well as where there is space to try something new. I'd also recommend to readers to explore outside of their genre. Who knows, you just might be inspired to try something different.
What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
Ahh. Proximity to food. I love to work standing up and if I sit, I have to stand up and walk, and my destinations are the fridge and the pantry. I have a notebook where I keep my to-do list and anything else I want to remember. That one is pretty important too.
Oh yes, the all important writing snacks. I do appreciate the good ole to-do list. I need to empty my brain onto paper with all of the to-dos before I can focus on accomplishing anything.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
Oh Andrew, I wish I could say something magical, but really, it’s hard work. Sitting down and writing and taking yourself seriously. If you take writing as a hobby, getting to the next level may not happen. Go to school on books. Write and re-write. Go to a lot of conferences. Get your work critiqued at conferences and learn from the critiques. Join a critique group. Now, more than ever, with Zoom, critique groups are so easy. And you don’t have to be in the same critique group as Donna Higuera or Andrea Wang. You’ll learn together with your partners. You’ll push each other. Go to work every day, even if you don’t accomplish something brilliant, each day is a step in the right direction.
What a great collection of advice! I LOVE the piece about taking yourself seriously. I think that can be hard for writers in the beginning, but doing so opens the doors to more possibilities. When you take yourself seriously you are willing to join a critique group, invest money in the form of classes/conferences, and maybe most importantly commit the time needed to actually write. Without taking yourself seriously these are all very hard choices to make.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
I have two picture books out on submission and I am putting the finishing touches on a book about a red-headed fifth grader named Gabby Haley who all of a sudden has to deal with being half-Cuban when her grandmother moves in with her family. I’ve been working on that one for eons.
My novel in verse set in the Cuban revolution is written. Now, with this one, comes the hard work or revising. Especially in verse, there are so many passes that you want to do to make sure you have imagery, and lyrical language and that the poems work individually, but also as a group. As soon as I send off the Gabby book to my agent, I’ll start that re-write.
Such exciting projects and possibilities! I wish you all the best with your subs and finishing up your other two books. I am sure we will be seeing them in stores in a few years.
Where can people connect more with you?
Facebook: Terry Catasus Jennings.
Readers be sure to connect with Terry on social media and please check out THE LITTLE HOUSE OF HOPE (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2022) with illustrations by Raúl Colón. You don't want to miss it!
Terry, thank you so much for participating and sharing the story behind THE LITTE HOUSE OF HOPE. I loved learning all about your inspiration and what inspires you as a creator.
Thank you so much for having me on The Backstory, Andrew. It was delightful.
Terry is generously offering one lucky winner (US only) a copy of THE LITTLE HOUSE OF HOPE in their choice of English or Spanish.
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT TERRY CATASÚS JENNINGS
Terry Catasús Jennings is a Cuban-American writer who immigrated to the United States after her father was jailed in Cuba by Fidel Castro’s government. She was twelve at the time and knew no English. The Little House of Hope/La casita de esperanza is a semi-autobiographical story in which immigrants give each other a helping hand in a new country. Her goal in life is to lead us to embrace our common humanity, as well as sing the praises of Cuban food. Terry is represented by Natalie Lakosil of Irene Goodman Literary Agency.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
ANDREW HACKET always dreamed of writing picture books, but never believed it was possible. Then one day he thought, “I could. I should.” So he did (with a lot of hard work). And while he hopes no one swallows acorns as a result of his story, OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA (Page Street Kids, 2024), he does hope kids will be inspired to grow kindness in their communities and stand up for themselves — without eating anyone, of course.
Andrew lives in Holden, Massachusetts with his wife and three children, all of whom are very mighty.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.