Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Q&A with Terry Catasús Jennings


Terry Catasús Jennings is the author of Definitely Dominguita: Knight of the Cape, the first in a new middle grade series for kids. She lives in Reston, Virginia.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Definitely Dominguita?


A: The idea for a series about a kid who loves to act out the classics came not long after the idea for Dominguita herself.


Once I had the plot for the first book, in which Dominguita tries to prove that girls can be knights, it wasn’t hard to jump to writing books in which she dresses and acts like characters in other classics.


The thing I had to figure out was whether I could come up with a contemporary adventure that she could have within the framework of other classics.


The idea appealed to me because it was a way to introduce children to the classics I enjoyed, and it was also an excuse to reread some of the books that were such a part of my childhood. I was very much like Dominguita, a child who preferred to read to anything else.


As I was writing book one, I began thinking about possible other books, rereading them, and making notes about possible adventures.


The plot for book two came fairly easily because it is one of my all-time favorite books and it lent itself to a modern adventure without having to sail in a submarine or travel around the world. By the time I’d finished writing and revising The Knight of the Cape, I had six possible additional titles. I’d even started on book two.


The name, Definitely Dominguita, came, literally, from the dictionary. I looked at every D word, but when I got to Definitely, I stopped. That was it. Dominguita is definitely one of a kind. It had to be Definitely Dominguita.

Q: Why did you choose Don Quixote as the first story Dom chooses to follow?


A: It happened while I was weeding, and it was more like Don Quixote chose Dom, rather than her choosing him.


My father was a huge fan of Don Quixote. One of my favorite mementoes from him is a little wooden statue of Don Quixote. I think Don Quixote was in my DNA already.


And that day, as I sweated and grunted over some impossibly resistant weeds, I realized that Don Quixote and I have a lot in common. We both set out to conquer things that have a very low success rate—weeding, writing—still, we carry on.


Another thing that came into play in Dom’s birth was the fact that I read so much as a child, that my mother worried about me. I needed more socialization in her eyes. So much so, that she talked the Mother Superior at my school into trying to tell me not to read so much.


Nuts, right? But Mother Superior was more than glad to accommodate her. In no uncertain words Mother Superior told me to stop reading Jules Verne because he’d been excommunicated. I suspect that’s the only thing she could hang her hat on, because, really, how do you tell a kid to not read?


As I weeded, this boy character took shape. A reader who loves Don Quixote gets told not to read (like Don Quixote was told). He came clothed in a cape instead of an armor, since armors are a tad unwieldy. He would be Don Capote. Don Quixote was the knight of the sad face, Don Capote would be the knight of the cape. (Capote means cape in Spanish.)


Fortunately for all of us, when I ran the idea by my daughter, she was scandalized. Why a boy? Can’t a girl be a knight? Of course that was my story. A girl who has to prove herself a worthy knight.


The first draft had the whole thing where the teacher says you can’t read, but my librarian friends and my agent talked me out of it.


It was replaced with the idea that Dominguita’s grandmother had read the classics in Spanish to her for bedtime stories. But now Abuela was getting forgetful and couldn’t live with Dominguita’s family anymore. Reading the classics was a way for her to be close to Abuela.


When she’s reading Don Quixote during recess, she ends up on the wrong end of a dare and sets out to prove that indeed, girls can be worthy knights. She is joined in her endeavor by Pancho Sanchez, her also worthy squire, and a freckled, redheaded girl named Steph.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: Even as a young immigrant, I always wanted people to think of me as normal, human, not different. It’s so interesting how, where you come from puts you into a different category.


I often found myself telling other kids, “You know, we had big buildings in Cuba.” I was always trying to prove that I or those who, like me, came from “away” were not inferior, not even different.


What I hope kids take away from this story is that Dominguita and her sidekick Pancho are both second generation Cuban-Americans and they are regular kids who live in regular homes who just happen to have black beans and rice for dinner more often than other kids.


Their lives are no different than the third child, other than that child, Steph, has a grandmother who makes killer chocolate chip cookies.


I hope they can identify with Dom’s love for her grandmother.

Of course, I hope that their curiosity about Don Quixote and other classics is piqued.


Q: What do you think Fátima Anaya's illustrations add to the book?


A: I loved Fátima’s illustrations. Actually, when I saw the first cover, I cried. Dominguita was exactly as I had pictured her.


In the first inside sketch, Fátima catches Dominguita reading at recess, alone, but not lonely. Kids are playing all around her, but she is oblivious. She has all she needs—her Abuela’s book. In the last sketch, and I hope I’m not giving anything away here, I love Dom’s face as she is ready to attack a windmill.


Q: This is the first in a series--what's next for Dominguita?


A: Captain Dom’s Treasure comes out on the same day as Knight of the Cape, March 2, 2021.


Dom finds a real map in a copy of Treasure Island. Using problem solving skills, the threesome figure out what the treasure is and to whom it belongs. The question is whether they’ll be able to find it and return it to its rightful owner before the smooth-talking Juan Largo claims it as his own. 


In September, two more books will round out the series.


In All for One the threesome fights the dastardly Bublassi brothers who are trying to ruin a quinceañera party. In The Lost Goat of Tapperville, Sherlock Dom and her crew go in search of a lost goat on a mire . . . by a moor . . . where the creepy howls of a hound . . . well, I can’t give it all away.


Those are the books that are already scheduled for release.


I have notes on least half a dozen more plots of other classics. The Martians are Coming, Around Mundytown in Eight Hours, an Agatha Christie mystery and more. I have to convince my editor that she wants to publish those.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: While the kids’ adventures are contemporary and they only take on the personae of characters in the classics, there were some books that I thought would work, at first, but in the end didn’t pan out.


I couldn’t talk myself into doing Robinson Crusoe. The way he treats his man Friday definitely gave me pause. There’s just way too much water in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of my all-time favorites. 


On the other hand, at first read, I discounted The Three Musketeers—lots of killing, lust, infidelity, and in the end, a woman is beheaded—but I couldn’t resist the idea of kids wielding chocolate-covered toilet plungers as their swords. Of the four books coming out this year, I think it’s the most fun.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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