Pam Muñoz Ryan has published her newest book, Tony Baloney: School Rules is the second in a series about Tony Baloney and his funny penguin family. Book two centers on the excitement of Tony Baloney’s first day of school and how he copes with his anxiety about being able to follow all the rules.
Mamiverse: Tony Baloney is a Macaroni Penguin. We have to ask, why Macaroni Penguins?
Muñoz Ryan: Children and teachers seem to love penguins. I chose the Macaroni because of the fanciful crest and the whimsy of the name.
Mamiverse: Tony Baloney seems to have a lot of heart, but always manages to get in trouble, despite his best efforts. Is he based on anyone you know?
Muñoz Ryan: He’s a combination of many boys I know, or have known. My sons were like Tony: athletic, sweet, yet mischievous. And when they were very young, much of their play was directed by their sisters.
Mamiverse: What would you say you love most about the Baloney family?
Muñoz Ryan: I love that they aren’t perfect and that every day does not go smoothly. The children make mistakes. The parents sometimes change their minds. (You will see this in upcoming books.) Momma and Poppa often have a little chat or a heart-to-heart talk with their children. The siblings squabble, but show their thoughtful sides, too.
Mamiverse: You have four grown children so the first day of school must have been an extraordinarily busy time in your home. Do you have a favorite memory of these days?
Muñoz Ryan: There was one year when all four children went to the same school, on the same bus, and had the same school schedule. My oldest daughter was in sixth grade, my younger daughter was in second grade and my twin sons were in kindergarten. I knew those circumstances would never happen again. I remember that day, more for the milestone than anything else.
Mamiverse: What are your five favorite things about the start of the school year?
Muñoz Ryan: New lunchboxes, new backpacks, new clothes, new friends, new teachers.
Mamiverse: You write for a variety of ages and reading levels, from picture books like the first Tony Baloney title, to early readers like Tony Baloney: School Rules, to novels like Esperanza Rising. What do you like about each different format?
Muñoz Ryan: I love the diversity of writing in different genres and for children of all ages.
Mamiverse: What inspires you to begin a new series or book?
Muñoz Ryan: If I think I have an idea that might be a solid premise for a story, I start by fleshing thoughts out on paper. Sometimes an idea matures quickly. Other times, it is painstakingly slow and may languish in a idea file on my computer for years before it is resurrected. I often talk to my editor, who is an astute barometer as to whether I’m on to something, or not.
Mamiverse: What was your favorite book as a child?
Muñoz Ryan: I had many favorite books. I don’t remember picture books as much as I remember the novels I loved: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery; Sue Barton nurse series by Helen Dore Boylston; Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. If I loved a book, I read it over and over, sometimes five times.
Mamiverse: Much has been written about the challenges parents face in getting their children to read for fun. Do you have any advice for parents with a child who doesn’t like reading? Any tips based on your own experience as a parent of four?
Muñoz Ryan: Start early. Reading should be enjoyable for the parent and the child. Keep your favorites and your child’s favorites handy. Put little stacks of children’s books everywhere in the house, in every room. When your children are in the tub, read them a story. When they’re at the breakfast table, read them a story. In the car, waiting for an older sibling . . . well, you get the picture. Look at reading as an opportunity.
Don’t worry when a child wants the same simple book read to them over and over again. In this case, repetition breeds mastery (of sentence structure, vocabulary, the concept of story…). For older and reluctant readers, ask a librarian or an independent bookseller for help. They are the gods and goddesses of knowing which books capture readers.
Mamiverse: Many Hispanics consider you a literary role model. As a Mexican-American growing up in California, is there something in your cultural upbringing that you’ve found important to instill and/or communicate through your work? If so, what it is it?
Muñoz Ryan: While I was growing up, my grandmother, Esperanza, lived only a few blocks away. She did not have many books at her house but she was a great storyteller. She also spoke Spanish to me so I grew up hearing the rhythm of two languages. I often intersperse Spanish in my books, when it’s intrinsic to the story, because it’s so lyrical.
There are a few lines in Esperanza Rising which came from my grandmother’s mind set. “I am poor, but I am rich. I have my children, I have a garden with roses, and I have my faith and the memories of those who have gone before me. What more is there?” So many Mexican women have told me that those lines resonated with them, because they are so deeply reminiscent of their family, especially those of my grandmother’s generation. And yet, the sentiment is still infused into their psyche. Mine, too.
That said, you will see my heritage reflected in some of my work, but not all. When I sit down to write, I don’t necessarily consider my heritage, unless it is important to the story at hand. All of the things I am culturally, professionally, and in my family (mother, sister, grandmother, daughter) seep into my consciousness. How could they not? They are all underlying. As a writer, I am focused on one goal, whether I accomplish it or not: I want the reader to want to turn the page.