Today I'd like to welcome to The Cath in the Hat Jacqueline Jules, the 2010 winner of a CYBILS Award in the Short Chapter Books category. Jacqueline is an accomplished children's book author who has published picture books as well as the chapter book series Zapato Power featuring Freddie Ramos, a Hispanic eight-year-old with the superpower of speed. Book three in the series, Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue, was just released. In it, Freddie tackles strange goings-on involving a mysterious purple squirrel running loose through his school and causing mischief. Then the squirrel inadvertently sets a real disaster in motion. Zoom! It's Freddie Ramos to the rescue!
First off, congratulations on winning a CYBILS for Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off. What was your reaction upon hearing the news?
Tears! Joyful shouting! Happy dancing! I was very surprised and enormously honored. This award is for literary merit AND kid appeal. That is very important to me. And it was chosen by bloggers who are teachers, librarians, and parents—people I admire and who are just as dedicated to children and children’s literature as I am. In addition to being an author, I am a teacher and a librarian. When I read a book, I consider my own reading pleasure and a child’s reaction. I’ve read many award-winning children’s books that I personally enjoyed but wasn’t sure I would widely recommend to my students or fellow teachers to use in the classroom. The CYBILS judges recognize the preferences and tastes of young readers. They also elicit responses from children. That makes being recognized by the CYBILS awards a huge honor I am deeply grateful for.
When did you first decide you wanted to write? How many years between that decision and your first published work?
I decided I wanted to be a writer in elementary school but it was only something I went around telling people. In high school, I dabbled with stories and poetry and continued telling people I planned to be a writer, but I can’t say I worked too hard at it. When I went to college, I flirted with one major after another, taking as many creative writing classes as I could. My decision to major in creative writing was entirely practical. My counselor showed me that the quickest route to graduation was to use all my creative writing credits toward a major, so I did. Looking back, I see that I did a lot more dreaming than writing early in my career. Publishing is hard work. You have to research markets. You have to polish your work and write cover letters. It takes time and determination. In the late 1980’s, after publishing a few poems and stories, I became more serious. I joined critique groups and learned that sometimes you have to start a story over from scratch to make it right. My first book for children was not published until 1995, almost thirty years after I first declared my intention to become a published author.
Freddie Ramos is such a believable, true-to-life boy. How did he come to be?
Freddie is a composite of the students I taught when I worked as a school librarian. The community he lives in and the school he attends mirror the school and community I served. When I began writing the Zapato Power stories, I imagined the little boys I taught and how they would feel if they suddenly acquired super-powered purple shoes. Since then, Freddie has became a real person to me. I can hear his voice in my head when I write about him. Sometimes, I read a line of dialogue or text and I say to myself, “That is the way Freddie would say it.” Sometimes I think of plot twists or actions I could include in the story and nix them because they don’t fit Freddie’s personality. It’s a magical thing for a writer when an imagined character becomes a person in his or her own right. When that happens, the writer continues writing to find out what will happen to the character, just like a reader reading on to find out how the story will end.
Kids are sure to love the purple squirrel in your latest book, Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue. The little critter certainly keeps Freddie on his toes as he races around trying to uncover the mystery behind the squirrel's unusual color. What gave you the idea?
I got the idea for the squirrel at a staff meeting at the school where I currently work. The assistant principal reminded the teachers to be careful about closing the recess door. “Remember last year,” she warned, “when that squirrel walked right inside after a line of kids.” The anecdote seemed like a perfect way to begin a Freddie story because he would have a reason to run all over the school and show off his Zapato Power. Finding a way to tie the squirrel into the big rescue and creating a mystery was much harder. I spent a long evening on the internet researching squirrels. One of the stories I found was about a purple squirrel on the campus of a private school in England in 2008. Eureka! I had a mystery for Freddie to solve. Freddie owns a guinea pig for a pet, so he would naturally want to save a squirrel who might be in danger. From there, I realized that in chasing the squirrel, Freddie could come across an even bigger opportunity to be a hero. When I finally had all the pieces of the story threaded together, I felt good, but for awhile, it was like having lots of puzzle pieces and no clue how to fit them together.
Although Freddie's superpowers give him an edge in being a hero, I like how ultimately he has to use his brainpower to solve mysteries and do good deeds. Do kids pick up on this, and, if so, how do they respond?
I was happy to hear that several reviewers noticed that Freddie finds brain power just as helpful as his Zapato Power. Since I believe that kids are just as smart as adults, I do think kids have picked up on this, though I have yet to hear a child articulate it exactly. Kids identify with Freddie and I hope that it is because they understand that his greatest abilities come from something they possess, too—good thinking skills and the desire to help others.
As the series progresses, Freddie's feats become more heroic. In Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue, he saves a trainload of passengers. Was upping the stakes in each book a conscious decision on your part or did it evolve?
In book #1: Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off, Freddie acquires his powers. In book #2: Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Springs into Action, Freddie learns how to control his powers and helps out a friend. In book #3, Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue, I set out to give Freddie the opportunity to become the hero he dreams of being. However, I also wanted him to deal with some of the frustrations of being a superhero, mainly the necessity of being anonymous. So, it was an entirely conscious decision to have the books show a progression in his character and in his abilities.
Are there any special challengers when writing a series? For instance, basic info about the setup has to be repeated in each book. Do you have any tips for keeping a series fresh?
It’s definitely a challenge to reveal the important information about a series character for the reader who might not be familiar with the first book without spending too many valuable words on explanation. Each book should be about 5,000 words, so economy of language is essential. I purposely started both Zapato Power #2 and Zapato Power #3, with action scenes. This gave me the opportunity to show Freddie’s super speed, rather than tell about it. In each book, I have worked hard to give Freddie different challenges and to divide his time between Starwood Park Apartments and Starwood Elementary. A change of scenery is not only good for the reader, it keeps Freddie busy, too.
In other interviews you mention that you are an extensive reviser. Did you revise Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue as much as the first two books in the series or was it easier--or harder--the third time around?
While the basic storyline stayed the same, the particular arrangement of words for Freddie Ramos Zooms to the Rescue was revised more times that I can count. I exchanged words, condensed them, moved them, and literally cross-examined them, making them prove they belonged at that particular point in the story. For the final revision, I began by highlighting revised sections in red. By the time, I was done, there was not much left that was still in black font. When students ask me what I like the best about writing, I always say revising. It is fun to look at a piece of text and see if you can say the same thing better. It’s like adding color to a black and white drawing. The image is so much more vivid and pleasing.
Any there more adventures in store for Freddie? What are you working on now?
I would love to see more Zapato Power books. I am working on more Freddie stories and keeping my fingers crossed that the series will do well enough that Freddie’s adventures will continue. When I do school visits, I always ask the kids to imagine what they would do if they suddenly acquired super-powered purple shoes. A few weeks ago, I was at a school where students wanted to create new adventures for Freddie. They raised their hands with one idea after another, until their teachers literally pushed them out of the multi-purpose room, so it could be set up for lunch. It was very exciting for me to see young readers imagining themselves in Freddie’s situation and coming up with new problems for him to solve. With help from students like that, I am sure I won’t run out of ideas for Freddie any time soon.
Finally, if you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
That is the question I began with when I started the Zapato Power series. I had to choose one power for Freddie and a means to provide it to him. I chose super speed because it is every little boy’s dream to run fast. I am the mother of two sons, now grown, but I remember how my youngest son in particular enjoyed running fast the first time he put on brand new sneakers. I remember myself as a child, trying to run fast enough to fly when the wind blew hard. We all want to go fast. But we want other powers, too. As I continued Freddie's story, I also gave him super eyesight, invisibility, and super bounce because he needed those powers to solve mysteries. I couldn’t just choose one power as I had originally intended for Freddie, so asking me to choose one for myself is a hard one. But at this moment in time, I think I would like super vision. I wear glasses with strong lenses. My eyesight has never been very good. So having super vision at this point in my life would be pretty cool.
For more information about Jacqueline Jules, please visit www.jacquelinejules.com
And take a peek at the trailer for the series.