Rebecca Balcárcel: The Other Half of Happy
Hello, August! Are you (or your kids) going back to school? Well, here are a bunch of books to cheer you up!
The Other Half of Happy
by Rebecca Balcárcel
Quijana is a girl in pieces. One-half Guatemalan, one-half American: When Quijana's Guatemalan cousins move to town, her dad seems ashamed that she doesn't know more about her family's heritage. One-half crush, one-half buddy: When Quijana meets Zuri and Jayden, she knows she's found true friends. But she can't help the growing feelings she has for Jayden. One-half kid, one-half grown-up: Quijana spends her nights Skyping with her ailing grandma and trying to figure out what's going on with her increasingly hard-to-reach brother. In the course of this immersive and beautifully written novel, Quijana must figure out which parts of herself are most important, and which pieces come together to make her whole.
August 20th, 2019
Introduce yourself and your debut novel!
Hi! I’m Rebecca Balcárcel. Like the main character in THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY, I’m half Guatemalan and half Anglo, and I live in Texas. Unlike her, I’m the mom of twins with autism, an English professor at a community college, and the lucky companion of a cat who loves to step on my keyboard.
My novel features bi-cultural Quijana, who is twelve. While she’s a good big sister to her special needs little brother, she’s not great at Spanish and not thrilled about being named after Spain’s most famous loser, Don Quixote, and definitely not going on the Guatemala trip her parents have planned. In fact, with two new friends and some kid-powered ingenuity, she’s out to ditch the trip and plan one of her own. She thinks she’s happy being half.
What’s the most surprising part about your debut journey so far?
The kidlit community’s genuine love for children has blown me away. I’ve met devoted librarians and teachers, as well as authors, who work hard to get books into kids’ hands. I might have guessed this to be true, but writing in isolation didn’t prepare me for the elaborate and thoughtful ways that people are serving kids at all stages in their reading lives.
Give a shout-out to a fellow debut!
Meeting Gillian McDunn at the Texas Library Association conference and serving on a panel with her was a highlight of my year! Her book, CATERPILLAR SUMMER, is a beautifully-wrought and deeply moving book, and her generous service to other debut novelists has been remarkable. She has been a role model to me for how to support my fellow debut authors. Thanks, Gillian!
Who is your favorite character?
Grandma Miller is actually my favorite character! She has wise words for Quijana, but she also Skypes and talks about her adventures -- hiking the Appalachian Trail and becoming a marine biologist. This lady is smart and active, and she has a big dose of self-respect to pass on to her granddaughter.
What inspired you to write this book?
Quijana’s story grew out of the real-life moment when my abuelos flew all the way from Guatemala to visit, and I couldn’t talk to them. They spoke only Spanish, and I spoke only English. It was tragic, you know? And being a book reader, awake to the power of words, the conversation we couldn’t have . . . well, it hit me hard. This moment and others like it laid the foundation for the book, and they remain the heart of Quijana’s story.
What advice would you give to a new writer?
Read, read, read. When I realized I was writing a middle-grade novel, I started reading them day and night. In this way, I heard young voices, and I picked up techniques. I apprenticed myself to the great authors. Also, I advise finding a small group of fellow writers who will cheer you on and give honest critique. This is invaluable! Fix things now instead of sending out a manuscript that isn’t ready.
How do you select character names?
I look at baby name books and websites, especially to find a name that suits the time period. In the case of my main character, Quijana, I chose a name that related back to a famous character in Spanish literature, Alonso Quijano -- he’s the country guy who declared himself knight errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha. This character is famous for trying to make the world better, even though he fails repeatedly. By tying Quijana to Spanish literature, I made it impossible for her to escape her heritage. Muaaahaaa! Of course, her parents explain to her who Quixote is, but it takes her the whole novel to finally own her connection to him.
What book or author has most influenced your own writing?
HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros rocked my world when I first read it. It showed a Latina as a main character, but it also showed how poetic a book could be and still feel realistic and voice-y. That book was the model for the first chapters I typed out for THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY.
Share a link to a favorite song!
I played “I’m Gonna Fly” from Kiki’s Delivery Service as I wrote, and especially as I re-wrote THE OTHER HALF OF HAPPY. It inspired me and reminded me of the whole goal of my manuscript -- to show how a kid can own her own gift and fly!
Share your favorite place!
Thanks for interviewing, Rebecca! Your book sounds so beautiful, and I can't wait to check it out on 8/20/19!