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Author Pam Muñoz Ryan Describes Journey From Rejection to New York Times Bestseller List

First Posted: Aug 06, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
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This article is part of "Palabras," the Latin Post Latino Author Series.   

New York Times Bestselling Author Pam Muñoz Ryan has penned more than 25 phenomenal books, including "Esperanza Rising," "Becoming Naomi Leon" and "Echo." The incomparable author has been putting her pen to work for over 20 years, and she still has plenty of magical, edifying and charming tales to tell.

The belated reader and writer was raised in Bakersfield, California, against the backdrop of dry heat, "clickety sprinklers," swamp coolers, drippy popsicles and lugs of grapes on kitchen tables. The eldest of 23 maternal cousins, she was frequently surrounded by family and food. Warm kitchens were swarmed with aunts and cousins, as well as the stinging scent of chiles in molcajete, the aroma of garlic and onions "arguing in a pot of beans," and tender meats and red mole enveloped in flour tortillas.  

When Ryan entered the fifth grade, she developed an insatiable hunger for reading. After she moved across town and changed schools, she found solace in the books filling her bike basket following visits to the local library. Those books were quick escapes when she needed to cope with her new reality.

"During those awkward upper elementary and junior high years, during bullying and the wrath of mean girls and not fitting in, I had the camaraderie of book characters," Ryan told Latin Post. "For me, the experience of reading and loving books was what, ultimately, gave me the impetus to write. It's interesting that my novels are for the age I was when books made the most profound difference in my life."

Although reading became a commanding interest during her young life, her aspirations as a professional writing didn't develop until she returned to school to gain her masters in post-secondary education. As she completed her coursework, a professor inquired if she'd considered writing as a career goal. When she'd said no, her professor encouraged her to write.

"She planted a seed that wouldn't stop growing. I could not stop thinking about the possibility of writing a book. I tried to submit manuscripts to publishers on my own but went nowhere," said Ryan. "I wish I would have kept track of all the rejections I received but I didn't. It must have been too painful at the time. After years of rejection, I contracted a literary agent. One story sold. Then, another. An editor asked me to try my hand at a novel. I slowly became something I had never been before."

Once, when returning from a trip from Chile, Ryan was introduced to a story about a young Pablo Neruda passing a gift to an unknown child through a hole in a fence. From that moment onward, Pablo Neruda's writings, biographies and memoirs took hold of her, and she set out to write a book inspired by Neruda's "The Book of Questions," which was based on his childhood. Published in 2011 for a YA audiences, that book was titled "The Dreamer" and utilized images designed by illustrator Peter Sis. After she completed "The Dreamer" manuscript, she began to work on her next book, "Echo" (Feb 24, 2015), which ended up being just a tiny part of a much of larger story.  

"I thought I was going to write a novella about the nation's first successful desegregation case in 1931, Roberto Alvarez vs. the Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District. I was researching at a historical society in San Diego County, when I came across a peculiar photograph of a large group of children, sitting on the steps of a country school," said Ryan. "Each child held a harmonica. When I asked the docent about the photo, she told me it was the school's harmonica band and added, 'during the big harmonica band movement in the United States.' Those intoxicating words were enough to send me on the long and winding journey toward 'Echo.'"

As an inspiring writer, Ryan's biggest challenge was perseverance, which is the same for many authors. However, she never felt dismissed or slighted because of her storylines. Her debut novel, "Esperanza Rising," the piece of historical fiction that borrows from her grandmother's immigration story, exemplifies that. There was no hesitation on behalf of her editor, Tracy Mack, or her publisher, Scholastic, about publishing a Mexican immigrant story with a Latina protagonist. Likely, that can be credited to pioneers in the children's publishing profession: Francisco Jiminez, Alma Flor Ada and Pat Mora.

In hindsight, Ryan has noticed that she frequently writes about social justice, family relationships and journeys. However, when she's writing, she doesn't focus on themes on a conscious level. She simply writes stories that need to be written. Also, when it comes to writing, momentum is far more important than inspiration, according to Ryan.

"The physical act of revisiting the manuscript day after day is where my creativity resides. If you are a writer and you're waiting for inspiration to land, you may be waiting for a long time. Inspiration is earned, not bestowed. It is found in the monotony of the rewriting, the rereading, the revision," Ryan stated. "I was asked once, 'What do you wish students would ask you, that they seldom do?' I wish they asked me about failure. About all the times I start over. Any successes I've had in publishing are the tip of an iceberg of accumulated failures. I often explain how long it takes me to complete a manuscript: 20-30 rewrites from that first awful draft to final book. It's important to me that students, especially, know that failure is an integral part of succeeding at anything."

The author worries about that commonplace notion that success is instantaneous. Often, that's not the case; some people are simply lucky. Often, she tells students and adults the same thing: "if you've never failed at anything the first time around, then you're setting your sights much too low! If everything you try is easy, then what       might you have been had you been fortunate enough to fail, and start over?"

Today, Ryan continues to write her "Tony Baloney" chapter books. She's just finished a Halloween story, and recently began what she believes will be a novella, and she hopes it will be illustrated.  

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