Matilde García-Arroyo and Hilda E. Quintana are the co-authors along with Edwin Fontánez of Exit Studio’s book Camila quiere escribir about a young girl who is looking for the inspiration to be a writer. Recently, Exit Studio sat down to chat with them about their passion for writing and promoting literacy.
Where did the two of you meet?
Hilda Quintana: We met at Inter-Metro because we are both members of the Humanities Faculty there. Our offices were nearby and when we met, we were both studying our doctoral degrees. Even though we didn’t teach the same discipline, we would talk about our common experiences as students. A few years later when I was already the Spanish Department Director, Maty became the English Department Director, and that’s how our friendship grew. We started working on projects together, and we even decided to do post-doctoral studies at Bard College in New York and at San Diego State University in California. The rest is history.
Matilde García-Arroyo: I remember we would talk about our dissertations during our office hours because we were both pursuing doctoral degrees at that time. That’s how we became friends. Contrary to what many people would have thought that English and Spanish professors had nothing in common, we were firm believers that professors from both disciplines could collaborate to improve the teaching of both languages. This led us to organize activities for English and Spanish professors, including conferences on the teaching of writing that made a mark in the history of education in Puerto Rico. These activities motivated us to pursue post-doctoral studies in the teaching of reading and writing in a first language. Ever since that period our friendship has grown, and we have continued to develop projects together.
Why have you focused your mission on reading in young children?
HQ: Really, our main interest has been in reading and writing at the college level, but we became aware of the importance of forming readers and writers at an early age. It is important that children have a strong base and that they have an opportunity to continue growing as readers. That way when they get to college, they will be able to read and write well.
MG: The truth is that we started working together on reading and writing projects at the college level because that is where we work. However, if we want our college students to read and write, they need to have a strong base and that base is acquired in the elementary school. We need children who are readers and writers. That’s why we are now focused on reading in the initial grades and above anything else in promoting the pleasure of reading.
Do you think that reading is not promoted in Puerto Rico in the early grades, that there might even be some kind of resistance to teaching it?
HQ: I think it is necessary to prepare better teachers in reading. It is important that they become familiar with new theories and methodologies. Many elementary school teachers do not receive the training that would enable them to get our children to become readers. Many are not aware of the importance of reading and writing at all levels. In addition, sometimes schools do not have sufficient books. I will add that my greatest concern is when children are promoted to the fourth grade. Studies demonstrate that it is at that time that we begin to lose them as readers.
MG: I don’t think it is resistance. I think too much importance is given to the mechanics of reading – learning to read “ma me mi mo mu,” and as soon as children learn the mechanics of reading, then it is said that they can read. It looks like the pleasure of reading is not even promoted. Even worse is the fact that comprehension of any text is not emphasized.
Do you think there is a negative attitude toward reading for pleasure at home and in the classroom?
HQ: Many parents are not aware of the importance of reading to their children, even before they are born! Children need to be exposed to a rich literature environment at home. They should have their own library, and parents and grandparents should read to them every day. Children also need to learn that reading is fun and that it is not done only to answer questions at school. All of these activities contribute significantly to improving the reading process. We must remember that a reader will become a writer, which in turn, will result in improving his or her writing process.
MG: I think we live in a culture where reading is seen as an activity that is done mainly in school. In other words, too much importance is given to “academic” reading and very little to pleasure reading. Even great literary work is read to take tests. A great poem or novel is not read for pleasure. I am not sure if I am exaggerating, but that’s why not much reading is done in many homes. Sometimes I think that parents will buy their children expensive MP3 players without hesitation or concern, but won’t buy a $20 book because they think it costs too much.
Camila quiere escribir is your second picture book; how did you decide to work with Exit Studio?
HQ: After we met Edwin, we observed that we shared common goals – to educate and to leave a legacy to Puerto Rico’s children. We also loved his illustrations; therefore, we started thinking that we wanted to do a project with him. We thought that the story about Camila was a perfect one. In addition, we totally believed in Edwin’s experience as a writer and editor.
MG: Some time ago we had written this story, but we had not submitted it to any publisher. When Edwin visited Puerto Rico in 2012 (and even before we met him!), we decided that we wanted to work on a project with him. So after that visit, we met with him and talked to him about the story and our interest in publishing it with Exit Studio. That’s how we started the conversation that turned our story into a reality and a project together with Edwin.
How did you meet Edwin?
HQ: We met him through the blog that we had with El Vocero; immediately a lovely friendship flourished. We shared ideas with him and learned about his books. We were delighted with his personality and talent. It was like we had known each other our entire lives. We finally met on a visit that Edwin made to Puerto Rico, and our friendship grew even more. Edwin has stolen the hearts of everyone at the UNESCO Chair for the Development of Reading and Writing office in our campus.
MG: He read our columns in El Vocero and that’s how he started writing to us. Through his webpage we learned about his work. A genuine friendship developed because we realized we had common interests and concerns about education.
What is the premise behind Camila quiere escribir?
HQ: With Camila quiere escribir we want to convey that writing is a process, and that it is not an easy one. However, we also want to communicate that if you really want to write, you have to put all of your effort into it and you will be able to. You can’t be frustrated when what you write is not perfect. Writing requires rewriting, patience, and dedication.
MG: I think there are two premises. One that writing takes time, and it is not an easy task. Sometimes one wants to write but cannot. The second premise is that it is not impossible to write. Sometimes we get the inspiration to write, and we can produce a wonderful piece of writing. What happened to Camila can happen to anybody. If we want to write, you have to decide you want to do it, and you must be willing to work hard.
What do you expect from this project?
HQ: We hope that Camila quiere escribir will inspire many children to launch themselves into the wonderful world of creative writing. Children all have great talent inventing stories. Therefore, we have to promote that more writing is done everywhere. We have to get children to stop being afraid of writing.
MG: Definitely we want to motivate children to write and to not be afraid of the writing process.
Camila quiere escribir was transformed and took another dimension when Edwin started to collaborate with you. Did you ever have any doubt regarding Edwin’s vision of the story?
HQ: Never! We always trusted his experience and direction. Those of us that understand the writing process know that what is written has to be submitted to other people for feedback, recommendations, and guidance. As the old saying in Spanish says “Four eyes can see better than two.” Edwin guided us and gave us advice and suggestions that enriched our story. Honestly, Edwin had more experience than we have, and this has to be taken into consideration.
MG: No, we never doubted how Edwin would be able to contribute to the story because we know of his great talent as a writer and artist.
How do you think that Camila quiere escribir will be received by young readers?
HQ: We hope that all children will enjoy Camila quiere escribir because it is a fun read. We also wish that it will stimulate them to write. This book could be a starting point for creative writing workshops in classrooms. We think there are a lot of Camilas and Camilos, why not? They only need a little bit of stimulus to create imaginary worlds, fantastic characters, and fairy tale scenes.
MG: We are quite confident that it will be very popular. People have even written asking us where they can buy it.
Edwin has been able to keep the production of Camila a great secret. Have you been able to see the final product?
HQ: No! Edwin is making us suffer. We’ve seen a few pages, but no more. We can’t wait to have the book in our hands!
MG: Edwin has made us suffer because we have barely seen the illustrations. We’re sure it’s beautiful!