An Interview with Pam Muñoz Ryan, author of Mañanaland

There are two common ways for a reader to trust an author: by sight or by feel. To trust by feel is to know that what an author produces will be familiar, a comforting return to a place and a set of experiences that leaves a reader feeling safe. Children - young readers of all ages - know this feeling well. They know that when the next {insert author name here} book appears, they will get it, they will read it, they will love it.


To trust by sight is something else entirely. It is to see an author's name on a work and know it will be challenging, it will be miraculous, and it will be unexpected. This is a harder way to gain an audience, but it is a deeper and a growing kind of trust.


Similarly, there are two common types of authors: those who lead with themselves, right out loud, and those who are present in more subtle ways, a quiet, internal assurance. Pam Muñoz Ryan is of the second type of author. She is disciplined, insistent on craft, never condescending to her young readers, and through her ability to live deep inside her narratives, she has created a body of work that can be trusted. To open a Pam Muñoz Ryan book is to put yourself in the hands of an able nagivator. You will not recognize the path of this journey, but you will emerge on the other side of it changed.

Ryan was awarded the Newbery Honor designation for her 2016 novel Echo. It is my favorite of her works to date, though the latest Mañanaland makes a sturdy effort at unseating it. In my review of Mañanaland, I noted Ryan's use of magical realism, a form that is surprisingly uncommon in middle grades fiction. I've become convinced that magical realism is the perfect form for the adolescent reader because both form and reader occupy a liminal space, fully real and fully magical all at once. Pam is a writer who understands this in-between space. She is an author you can trust by sight. I am so thankful to her for the time she took to participate in this interview and for her books - always challenging, always miraculous, always delightfully unexpected.

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photo credit: Mike Brown

SBW: As a genre, middle grades fiction does not have many examples of magical realism. Why do you think it is uncommon? Why have you found yourself gravitating toward it?


PMR: It’s not as uncommon in the adult market. And I think there is a lot of fantasy in the children’s market that borders or crosses into the magical realism, but isn’t labeled as such. My background is steeped in it. My Mexican grandmother had all sorts of superstitions and beliefs. She told me the cautionary tale about La Llorona, the wailing women who abducted disobedient children. She always followed with, “You can believe it.” And if I ever doubted her about, for instance, the mysterious healing properties of some plant in her yard, she would say, “It’s true. I know someone, who knows someone, whose sister-law-law was cured . . .” She was often convinced that she could see an image of the Virgin Mary in a dusty window pane, and wouldn’t wash it until the rain rinsed it away. My Oklahoman step-grandmother who I saw every Saturday morning of my childhood, also had superstitions and stories. The one I can’t forget was that you should always cook a chicken on the day you wring its neck or its spirit would follow you for days. (She knew someone, who knew someone . . . ) It wasn’t a great leap for me to write magical realism.

SBW: When you write for middle grades readers, do you actively think of the child you once were, or are you picturing an audience of today’s kids? Or maybe even both? Describe that audience to us.

PMR: I don’t think about a particular reader, exactly. I know the age range of my reader going into the project, and I suppose that is at the back of my mind. I do think it’s interesting that I write for the age I was when books made the most dramatic difference in my life - fifth grade through early high school.


SBW: How much preparation and research do you undertake for one of your books? Each one is finely and uniquely drawn and relies upon intricate knowledge of such varied places and ideas that I feel it must be a large job.


PMR: Every story has its own unique research challenges, whether the book is nonfiction, historical fiction, or fiction. Even fiction is filled with research. I learned a lot about stone arch bridges while researching Mañanaland. I’m not a fast writer. If you look at the pub dates of my novels, you’ll see they are years – sometimes five years apart. They all start out with a deep dive into the research of the people and/or time periods and the circumstances in the story. And the research really doesn’t end with the beginning of the writing. It doesn’t end until the book goes to press. I’m always referring back to it.


SBW: Speaking of those bridges, I keep thinking about Max and his father and Buelo making bridges that will “allow one side of the river to safely hold hands with the other” - it's a perfect metaphor! What would you say are the things, “stone by stone” that we can each do to help build that bridge in today’s world? 


PMR: Thinking before we speak. Practicing patience. Listening to another’s story before we make assumptions. Nurturing small acts done with great love.


SBW: We likely can agree that Buelo is an inspired and inspiring character; he is my unabashed favorite. He joins a long list of elders who are able to impart a certain gentle wisdom and encouragement in literature for young people. Why do you think the grandparent or wise elder is such an enduring and effective role?


PMR: Having characters with a sense of history and life experiences gives me a way to impart perspectives or wisdom that my character is not yet old enough to know. I think, too, that having the presence of multiple generations in a story respects and celebrates each person’s worth in a community or family dynamic.


SBW: The setting of Mañanaland is both distinct and fully realized. Even without a map, I felt I would instantly recognize Max’s village if I ever visited. How important is place in your creative process? 


PMR: I think about the setting as one of the characters. I imagine all the emotional attachments my characters may have to that environment and why.


And now the requisite SBW Top Ten:


Who are your heroes?

Women who overcame the societal obstacles of their time.


Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first?

I was an obsessive reader before I ever dreamed of becoming a writer.


Who/what are you reading these days?

I’m an indiscriminate reader. I like so many different things! I have Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile waiting to be read. I’m reading Julie Andrews's Home Work. I’m just finishing a detective thriller. I also just finished Sharon Cameron’s The Light in Hidden Places. And Deborah Wiles’s, Kent State.


What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?

I love procedural detective television shows. I watch a lot of foreign films and British television.


What is one important lesson you got from your parents (or upbringing, more generally)?

I come from a blue-collar family. Both of my parents worked full time, even after I moved away to college, so I came from a family with a strong work ethic. That example helped me treat this profession of writing with diligence and as a job—one I’m so grateful to have.


When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

At one time, I thought I wanted to be a nurse. In eighth and ninth grade, I volunteered at a hospital. But by the time I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to have a job that kept me close to books. I thought teaching would be the answer, and it was for a few years. After that, I wanted to be a writer.


What constitutes a really good day for you?

A day I speak to all of my children. A day I spend with one or more of my grandchildren. There are so many types of days . . . I don’t really ever think in terms of good ones or bad ones. A day I would consider fun and fulfilling would be to get up at 5 am, write until 1 or 2, then take a long walk on the beach or a swim at the Y, and order pizza for dinner for the family.


What is one thing you are afraid of? 

A thousand little things: not being able to care for my family, the fear that if I stop writing, I'll forget how. Oh, and pandemics.


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The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

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