Friday, February 25, 2011

Elated Over Eleven: Ashley Hope Perez

Today I have an interview with Ashley Hope Perez, author of the upcoming What Can't Wait (March 1, 2011). I devoured the book in about two sittings and It's one of my favorite debuts of the year, I thought it was excellent. My review will be up on the release date so I'll save the gushing. But it's not just me who has mad love for this book. A lot of other people do too.

If you want to see why all the cool kids are talking about this book, read on ;)

Can you tell us about What Can't Wait?

Seventeen-year-old Marisa Moreno has smarts and plenty of promise, but she’s marooned in a broken-down Houston neighborhood—and in a Mexican immigrant family where making ends meet matters more than making it to college. At school, it's another story. Marisa's calc teacher expects her to ace the AP test and to get into an engineering program in Austin—a city that seems unimaginably far away. When her home life becomes unbearable, Marisa seeks comfort elsewhere—and suddenly neither her best friend nor boyfriend can get through to her. Caught between the expectations of two different worlds and carrying a dark secret, Marisa will have to decide what can't wait.

In addition to this description—cribbed from the awesome copy generated by my publisher, Carolrhoda Lab—I’d like to add that the book wouldn’t exist without my former students at Chávez High School, to whom the book is dedicated. It’s not based on any specific student’s experiences, but the stories they shared with me shaped Marisa’s world and her relationships. I tried to write the novel my students told me they wanted to read.

It's so awesome that as a teacher you actually listened to your students and later on wrote a book for them! I think the book is a combination of some of the experiences students go through in high school and as a teacher, I must admit to being surprised at how you treated the students in your book with respect. Most of my teachers mock us or could care less (with notable exceptions of course).

How did you break into publishing? You have two releases coming up, one in 2011 and one in 2012. Congrats!

Thank you! My agent, Steven Chudney, has been a wonderful advocate. It took a while for us to find the right publisher, but Carolrhoda Lab has been a great home for my writing. I was fortunate enough to get a two-book deal, which means that I get to continue working with the same editor (Andrew Karre). I love continuity, so this is a real blessing for me. For now, though, it’s all about What Can’t Wait!

As for finding an agent... it’s a difficult and humbling process. I do not have any horror stories of cold or callous responses from agents, though. While I got some form rejections, I also received kind and thoughtful notes wishing me well and offering suggestions. I was surprised by the generally positive response even from those agents who passed on the book. The only explanation I’ve come up with is that, because I handpicked the agents I queried, they were more sympathetic to my project than others less familiar with edgy YA might have been

Like Marisa, some teens can relate to being told to put their education off in order to put family first. Other teens might be surprised by that. How will those teens connect to this story?

A lot of people focus on the importance of teen readers finding a reflection of their own experiences in YA novels. This is definitely important, and I did want to capture a story that my students in Houston felt they hadn’t encountered in books. But all fiction, YA included, also can serve as a way into worlds and experiences outside what we as readers know. This is how it is possible for me to love, for example, a book like Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn. The protag’s rich-girl-in-San-Francisco life couldn’t be more different from my own (or my life as a teen), but Cyd’s voice is honest and fresh, and her struggles are still compelling.

So my hope is that teens with support for education in their family will nevertheless find Marisa’s experiences engrossing.

I think this book is particularly timely for sophomores and juniors and maybe even seniors (even though they should all be done with the college process by now!). I for one did not realize that there were some families that valued family over eudcation, everything else yes, but not education. Marisa has to make an increidbely tough choice that many of us won't have to make and this book will definitely be an eye-opening and engaging read for anyone.

What book would your book date?

I would set What Can’t Wait up with Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. Sammy and Marisa may come from different communities and different decades, but they would definitely understand each other’s challenges and commitments. If my book were feeling a little wilder, I’d set it up with Matt de la Peña’s Ball Don’t Lie for a dose of Los Angeles and a life even rougher than Marisa’s.

Ahh Sammy and Juliana would definitely get Marisa! It's fitting, different times but similar challenges and distinctive, great main characters with strong voices. I still need to read Ball Don't Lie. *le sigh*

Did your Teach for America experience influence your writing of What Can't Wait or have any other influence on you? It's an amazing program.

TFA is indeed a phenomenal program. After working in numerous education-related settings, I would still say that the best teaching training I received came from TFA. I actually stayed on in my school after my TFA commitment, and I am still very much involved in education issues and in touch with my former students from 10th, 11th, 12th, ESL, and AP Lit classes (thank you, Facebook).

In terms of What Can’t Wait, one of Marisa’s teachers, Ms. Ford, reflects the TFA philosophy of challenging all students from all backgrounds to achieve academic success. While she motivates Marisa in many ways, Ms. Ford also drives her nuts, especially through her failure to recognize the challenges and obstacles Marisa faces outside the classroom. This is something of a delicate subject because some might say that there is a fine line between understanding a student’s challenges and lowering expectations. I found that students struggling to balance school and outside demands were a lot more responsive when I asked them first to tell me what was going on and then we problem-solved how they could still fulfill the expectations of the course. Often we teachers begin with what needs to get done and only ask about students’ situations as an afterthought.

First of all, I love how some teachers are willing to be friends on Facebook, I really do like that :) More importantly I admire all the TFA teachers for sticking with such a tough program that ultimately sounds rewarding. You've hit on something that I don't think is talked about much when talking about teachers. Being understanding of a student's situation while still mainting high expectations, it's a very, very delciate balance. Hopefully more teachers will adopt the method of asking first, and then following up on what needs to be done, not making the situaion of each student an afterthought.

What are some of your current favorite YA reads? What fellow '11 debuts are you looking forward to?

Some YA titles I’ve loved recently are: Before I Die by Jenny Downham, Imani All Mine by Connie Porter, Every Time a Rainbow Dies by Rita Williams-Garcia, How to Build a House by Dana Reindhardt, Looking for Alaska by John Green, and Madapple by Christina Ledlum. I hate that I’m leaving so many books out, so I’ll just add a few more: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and The First Part Last by Angela Johnson.

For 2011 debuts, I’m especially looking forward to reading
Something Like Hope by Shawn Goodman and The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin. The Elevensies site is a great place to learn about some of the authors debuting in 2011.

What two PoC characters would you love to hang out?

I would love to see Reason from Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness series spend an afternoon with Janie from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. This would be while Reason is pregnant. If anybody would listen to Reason’s story without judging, it’d be Janie.

What is one issue you have with YA/MG? What is something you love about YA/MG?

I think writing MG must be harder than writing YA, because the books need to feel real without being too bleak or too explicit. With teen readers, I don’t really worry about what I will “expose” them to; with MG readers, that would have to be a consideration. Still, there are many MG titles I love. Some recent favorites include Gennifer Choldenko’s Notes from a Liar and Her Dog, Christopher Paul Curtis’s Elijah of Buxton, and Leslie Connor’s Waiting for Normal.

I love how YA and MG books are often the gateway “drugs” to a life-long addiction to reading. As an adult who still reads YA, books for teens make me realize how important it is to go on with the project of becoming oneself, which is what being an adolescent is all about.

9. Where can readers find out more about you and your books?

Listen to a great public radio interview here

Folks can also visit my website,, where I have a blog, many reviews of YA books, and an excerpt of What Can’t Wait as well as The Knife and the Butterfly, my next novel. Readers can also find me at Goodreads, Facebook, or Twitter. Also email: I’d love to hear from you!

Thank you so much for stopping by Ashley! Pre-order