Today we're talking with Jacqueline Jules, author of Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off.
FQ: Freddie is such a happy young man - he's a great role model for children. Was it a conscious decision on your part to make your hero a super happy child?
The character of Freddie is a composite of the students I taught when I worked as a school librarian. I taught many wonderful children who had a positive attitude in spite of sometimes difficult home situations. Thank you for saying Freddie is a role model. I do want him to be an example of a child who enjoys life and cares about others. But I also want Freddie to be a tribute to the resilient and courageous children I taught.
FQ: "Zapato" is a fun word to say and as someone who doesn't speak Spanish, I didn't understand the connection at first. Why did you use the Spanish "zapato" in both the title and story? Was it to draw Spanish speaking children to the story? To help educate English speaking children?
For a number of years, I worked in a Title I elementary school with a large population of English Language Learners. Since Freddie Ramos was inspired by my students, it was natural for me to make him an Hispanic child. I made a conscious effort to include enough Spanish in Zapato Power to make an Hispanic child feel at home without excluding non-Spanish speaking children.
Children’s literature does not have enough Hispanic heroes, particularly for beginning readers. We live in a diverse society, and it should be visible in our books for children. As a librarian, I often felt frustrated that there weren’t enough beginning readers or early chapter books which reflected my students’ lives. That motivated me to write Zapato Power. But it was also my motivation for two other books, No English and Duck for Turkey Day. Like any teacher, I want to give my students what they need. And when I didn’t find enough books that met their needs, I sat down at my computer.
FQ: Where did the idea of superpower purple sneakers come from? Why not a super hat or belt?
Little boys like to run. My youngest son loved to race when he was small. Children always enjoy showing off brand new sneakers. Magic shoes seemed like a natural choice.
FQ: So many kids would love to outrun a train. Was it fun to write about the train race?
Actually, that was the part I rewrote the most. It comes in the beginning of the book and authors generally tend to rewrite their first chapters many times. Strong beginnings are essential to the success of any book. In addition, I am not a runner, so I had to do some research into how it feels. I talked to my daughter-in-law, who runs marathons, and read descriptions on the Internet. Finally, I reached back into my own memory as a child. When I was in elementary school, I used to love those warm windy days that came just after and just before a big rain. I loved the way the moist warm air blew across my cheeks and ruffled my hair all around. It smelled, to me, like magic. I used to run into the wind, pretending I was galloping off on a horse that just might, if I ran fast enough, sprout wings and fly like Pegasus. It was a delightful fantasy of freedom. Describing that for Freddie was both a challenge and a joy.
FQ: Mr. Vaslov at first appears to be "just" a maintenance man but by the end of the story, we learn that he's so much more. Is he based on anybody you know? Where did he come from? And we will ever learn about his superpowers (or abilities to make special sneakers)?
I see Mr. Vaslov as a father figure for Freddie, since Freddie’s own father died in military duty. His character is even more prominent in the second book, Freddie Ramos Springs into Action, which is currently with the illustrator and scheduled for next year. In my mind, Mr. Vaslov is a Russian immigrant who was unable to find a job in his field when he came to America. Almost twenty years ago, I volunteered in a program that helped a large group of Soviet Jews who settled in my community. Many of these immigrants were professionals in Russia but became hairdressers and gas station attendants in the United States. I see Mr. Vaslov as a highly educated man who made the choice to leave his native country for political reasons. I also see him as a person who hopes to become rich if he can just perfect his inventions.
FQ: Freddie really, really wants to be a superhero but he learns that brain power works better to help his friends. How have kids reacted to this important lesson?
I think most kids want superpowers. I know I would have liked the ability to fly or see great distances when I was young. But I also wanted to have a regular life, to go to school and have fun like any other kid. Can you be a hero and still go to elementary school? That is Freddie’s dilemma. He wants to use his super speed and help people, but he also wants to have a normal life with his mom and his friends. Freddie lives the dream of having super powers in the real world. That means he has to deal with frustration sometimes and the complications of hiding his super powers. It also means he has to use his head to figure out the best way to deal with situations. Freddie is a hero other kids can be, even if they don’t have super speed.
FQ: You acknowledge your Tuesday Night Writing Group. How important is it for you, as a writer, to have a writing support group?
I worried a little that my dedication sounded too sappy, but I must say that I am indebted to my writing friends and would be “lost without them.” They never let me get away with being lazy. They push me to do my best work. I have been fortunate that I have had a number of books published in the last couple of years. None of that would have happened without my first readers—my writing friends who pointed out weak places and offered ideas. They give me the directions I need to make successful revisions and bolster my faith in myself, giving me the courage to keep trying.