Writing Sweet Valley High, "But For Brown Kids"

10/20/2011 01:40 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011

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By: Nishat Kurwa

Writer Malin Alegria's first novel, "Estrella's Quinceanera", covers familiar territory for anyone who's ever been fifteen, and a girl, and battled with her mother. Still, the fact that the sassy protagonist is Mexican American makes her a novelty in young adult fiction.

The original idea for "Estrella's Quinceanera" came from a publishing house. Alegria was commissioned to write a book that would reach Latino teens. The book centers on a quintessential coming-of-age experience for many Latinos; the traditional party that happens when a girl turns 15.

But some of the archetypes in the narrative dreamed up by Alegria's non-Latino editors... sounded like they'd been dreamed up by non-Latino editors. For instance, they described a character who sounded Dominican, from the upper West Side in New York, but whose family owned a Mexican restaurant. Alegria said to a certain extent, she knew she had to work with the stereotypes the publisher presented to her. "There were some details that I accepted from them and others that I totally ignored. Because I thought that if I was going to write a quince story I was going to just write the craziest story I could think of, with the girl having to wear a secondhand dress, that was her cousin's that was made in Tijuana....her family was forcing her to do this, but she really didn't want to."

For someone who was raised by radical Chicano parents in the 70s, Alegria is sanguine about the compromises she made in this "collaboration" with the publisher. She said she tried to be as subversive as possible, inserting references to Cesar Chavez and Aztec dance, while still making sure to write with mass audiences in mind. "I had this cholo cousin in El Centro," she said, "and he called me and said, 'Ay Malin, I saw your book at Walmart! You're right by the washing machines.' I'm like, 'Yes! Walmart!' "

It is one of the best placements an author can get, especially if they're trying to reach rural communities that don't have many brick and mortar booksellers, or Kindle buyers. But Alegria has also found enduring success through overwhelming grassroots support. Around the country, librarians and teachers raise money so their Latino students can experience literature, and authors, with a familiar story. They fly Alegria into town to speak to auditoriums and libraries packed with students. She dresses up in a ruffled quinceanera dress, white gloves, and a tiara, and acts out the book's characters for her readings.

In small Texas border towns like Macallen and Pharr, Alegria gets a rock star's welcome - an uncommon experience for an author who's not J.K. Rowling. When Alegria arrives, she's greeted by handmade posters made in her honor, and school marquees trumpeting her visit. These readings are organized by people like Nora Galvan, the library coordinator for a South Texas district that's about 98 percent Latino. Galvan said both young men and women pack auditoriums and libraries to see her read from the book.

"She actually talks to the kids about what inspired her to be an author, and what the process of writing is, which is one of our assessments here in the state of Texas," Galvan said, "and then she talks about her experiences and how they can put that into words, and how they can become authors if they so desire. "

A recent Northwestern University study found that the print reading habits of young people of color are virtually the same as whites. But Galvan said many of her district's students are reading below their grade level. Also, most are bilingual. They're hungry for stories like Alegria's, that reflect this proficiency, Galvan said. "Every other word, Spanish English Spanish English. 'Mama, voy a mi house,' 'I wanted to go en mi carro'...just mix everything. The way (Alegria) writes is the way we speak in this area," Galvan said.

Some of Alegria's chapters open with a glossary that, with a wink, introduces the words and phrases that are common to bilingual kids like 13-year-old fan Amanda Cevallos. "Like, 'chola' - the definition was like, 'big hair and hoop earrings''s kind of true!," she said. "I just never find that in a book, so it's pretty cool."

Cevallos is Dominican and Mexican, and has navigated diverse groups of friends in public and private school in the San Francisco Bay Area. There aren't many mainstream representations of Latinos that resonate with her cross-cultural experiences.

That's not so different from a decade ago, when Alegria was using her coming-of-age stories for a stand-up comedy act. Stereotypical Latinos predominated in pop culture; "machista" womanizing fathers, and bad boy cholos.

Alegria's parents had tried to counteract influences like these by immersing their kids in indigenous culture. But as a kid, Alegria said, she was ashamed to tell her parents that it was difficult for her to share in their sense of pride. "I was embarrassed of living in the Mission District...growing up feeling too dark for the boys to like, or that my clothes were not new enough. All of these insecurities are what I use in my writing educate and also affirm for young kids, that it's ok to shop at the flea market, and have parents who are working class, and to be dark skinned and still love yourself."

These kind of affirmations weren't available for Alegria back in the day. Not on her bookshelf, at least, where the characters that reigned supreme were the alpha blondes of Sweet Valley High. "I really believed that was what American life is like," Alegria said, "having a twin sister, having a cute boyfriend with a red convertible; and I needed to have this experience to be an American."

Now, Alegria has one of the biggest vehicles in young adult fiction to rewrite the American experience. Scholastic Books has commissioned her to write a four-book series for Latino teens. In fact, she says it's pretty similar to Sweet Valley High, but for brown kids.

Alegria didn't set out to be a writer. But she says when she hears from young fans that they recognize themselves in her stories, it feels like she's arrived at her calling. This, she says, is why her grandmothers crossed the border.

Check out Turnstyle News for an audio version of this story.

This story also aired on NPR's Morning Edition.