Janel Rodriguez Ferrer is the author of the new tween book series, The Arts-Angels. A biographer-turned-tween-fiction-author, Janel has always dreamed of creating a book series for Latino tweens and teens. In the first book of the series, The Arts-Angels Track 1: Drawn to You, readers meet Gina Santiago, a smart, spunky and talented Nuyorican teen, who is determined to make art through music and “rock her destiny”! Read on to learn more about Janel, and her series’ heroine, Gina.
Tell us a bit about your background and where you’re from.
I am pure Nuyorican: a native New Yorker born to Puerto Rican parents.
My father came to New York first. He is a few years older than my mother and he left for “la ciudad” in search of work and a new life when he was just nineteen years old.
After a series of humble jobs he eventually got involved in the Latino arts scene, becoming both a playwright and a journalist. And after nearly a decade of New York living—and growing in his religious faith—he decided it was time to settle down. But where was he going to find a suitable bride? Back on “la isla,” of course!
And so back he went for a visit. I like to call it his “Wife Hunting Tour.” While on it, he officially met my mother, whom he’d actually met some years before when she was just a child, but who by then had grown into a lovely young woman. They got married, moved back to NYC, and are still a loving couple (and the best parents ever)!
How about education? Where did you go to school?
I graduated from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts . . . I don’t want to say what year exactly, though it’s pretty easy to figure out. I went to school with both Jennifer Aniston and Chaz Bono but didn’t know either of them. (They are older than me!)
Afterward I attended the City College of New York, where I majored in English and minored in art.
That makes sense. You just published your first book, The Arts-Angels Track 1: Drawn to You. What is it about?
The Arts-Angels Track 1: Drawn to You is the first book in a series for tweens and teens that is centered around music. This is why the books are called tracks instead of books. Also, every book title is the title of a song (or track) that Gina, the main character, writes for her band, the Arts-Angels.
Track 1 is about Gina Santiago, a thirteen-almost-fourteen-year-old who gets accepted into the New York Academy of Arts and Talents, a private school in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, on an art scholarship. But she really wanted to get in for music! Once there, she quickly makes friends, enemies, and (worst of all) “frenemies”! But it’s there that Gina also discovers that she can still not only pursue her musical destiny—she can rock it!
What inspired you to write The Arts-Angels Track 1: Drawn to You?
When I was about nine years old I declared aloud that I wanted to write books when I grew up. And the kind of books that I meant were the kind of books I was devouring at the time (between trips to the library and Barnes & Noble): children’s fiction.
Many of the books I read were series fiction of some kind or another: the Mary Poppins books, the All-of-a-Kind-Family books, the Oz books, the Narnia books, the Little House on the Prairie books, etc., etc. By the time I was a tween, I was into the Trixie Belden mystery series—and there were more than thirty books in that series.
I became obsessed with the Trixie Belden series because I really loved the whole concept of the spunky female lead who knew what she wanted out of life, and what she wanted to be when she grew up. I loved that she helped to form a club (the Bob-Whites) with her friends, and that together they not only achieved their own goals, but assisted others in need.
But I never actually wanted to be Trixie or any of the Bob-Whites. I wanted to be the creator of the series! And I knew even at the age of eleven that someday I would write my own series along those lines, and now I have, but with some tweaks: The Arts-Angels aren’t a club, they’re a band. They don’t solve mysteries, they make music. They don’t live in the country, they are city kids, through and through. And instead of being led by a blue-eyed, freckle-faced, sandy-haired girl with spunk, they are led by a dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned Nuyorican girl . . . with a lot of spunk.
You’ve written a few biographies for adults and children. Is any of The Arts-Angels autobiographical?
I think most works of fiction have autobiographical elements, and The Arts-Angels Track 1: Drawn to You is no exception. Like Gina, I am a Nuyorican who attended a high school of the arts in Manhattan. But I made Gina’s school into a cross between my school—which was public—and an Upper East Side private school. I also majored in art. I am a born-and-bred Manhattanite like her as well, although I didn’t grow up in the same neighborhood as Gina. But I am familiar with the Upper East Side because I was a nanny for many years and used to take my charge to her school there. I have also tutored in private homes there and I have also worked in offices there over the years.
Gina is a practicing Catholic, like me, and the faith is present but not preached in the story. Gina is shown going to Mass, and her uncle is a priest, so the reader also gets a peek into what life can be like in a church rectory.
Gina’s faith life proved to be very convenient in helping move story elements along, including providing her with a regular place to rehearse and perform her music (many American Idol winners and pop singers got their musical start in church) and it gave her a connection to Saint Michael the Archangel, a running thread in the story. They say “Write what you know,” and for the length of my childhood I attended Mass in Spanish every Sunday, and still cherish the memory of the music I heard there. Also, my big sister gave me a sterling silver medal of St. Michael for my sixteenth birthday, similar to the one Gina receives in the book for her confirmation. Plus, at different points in my life, someone in my immediate family has worked in a church rectory. To this day I count many priests among my friends.
To make Gina a genuinely “Nuyorican” character, I felt that a faith life would have to factor in somewhere, as ultimately I believe that if we are to speak of one’s culture, we are not referring only to one’s country of origin and language, but one’s religion, too, as well as one’s customs, traditions, art, music . . . and cuisine. Mmmmm! (There are a number of typical Puerto Rican dishes mentioned in the book, too.)
Finally, unlike Gina, I am not a skilled guitarist in the least. But I have taken lessons, have assisted in a rock camp for girls, and even attended a rock boot camp for adults (where I played guitar in a band)!
You’ve written biographies about strong and successful women such as Gloria Estefan and Nely Galan. What makes your character, Gina Santiago, a strong young woman?
Gina is a veeeeery strong young woman. I love writing her! She’s almost fourteen years old and lives with her young, widowed mother. I know a number of single mothers raising teenage daughters, and realize how the teen years can be very trying and tense as boundaries are tested—and often trespassed. I also think that it’s a common public perception that Latina women are confident and strong-willed, and Gina and her mother definitely both fall into those categories!
But what makes Gina particularly strong is her intense desire and drive to achieve her dreams because of how firmly she believes in herself and her abilities. She has found her passion early in life and she is focused on fulfilling it. But she’s also the kind of person who will not sell herself out, which I also love. We will see this better in the second book, when the Arts-Angels are tempted by fame and glamour and how Gina refuses to compromise herself and her music—even to the point of creating a rift between her and her band.
How have you seen your culture influence your career so far?
I was hired to write the first two books I had published—the biographies on Gloria Estefan and Nely Galan, for the educational publisher Raintree Steck-Vaughn—because they were about Latinas and they wanted the books to be written by a Latina. They thought it would be inspiring for a young reader (particularly if she were Latina herself) to not only read about a woman of color who was a leader in her field, but to also know that the biography was written by a person of color. The hope was that readers of the biographies would then be able to picture themselves in any kind of field or profession they chose to pursue without hindrance. So I would say that, from the very beginning of my career as a published author, my cultural background has indeed influenced and contributed to its fruition
You decided to publish your first series with your own imprint, Brushstroke Books. What are some of the benefits of being a literary entrepreneur? What are some of the challenges?
The biggest challenge has been what I expect is a typical challenge for any starting entrepreneur: funding the venture! Had I decided to simply self-publish and go the “e-book only” route, I would have spent a lot less money!
But because my audience is young people, and as many of them still do not use digital readers, I wanted to be sure to have a traditional, non-digital version of the book available. I also wanted the book to be in paperback form as opposed to a hardcover because paperbacks are more affordable for young consumers, as well as more portable (and I read all of my Trixie Beldens in paperback form when I was a tween).
On top of that, I wanted a professional-looking product, and in order to get that, I knew I had to use the professional services of a traditional publisher and a graphic artist. And as an artist myself, I couldn’t help but want to be involved with every detail from colors to fonts to logos.
As a person who has always considered herself more of an artist than a businesswoman, I surprised myself by really getting into all of the aspects of the creation of my imprint: writing the business plan, finding investors, forming the brand, etc. In that vein, the name of my imprint, Brushstroke Books, is a nod to my artistic background as well as to the artistic theme of the Arts-Angels books, and an acknowledgement of how much book-making is an art form in and of itself. That, just as a painting comes alive brushstroke by brushstroke, getting a book from manuscript form to finished product is also a creative process that unfolds step-by-step.
Two major benefits to having one’s own imprint are the freedom and control I have over every aspect of the design and creation of my product. I decide the time frame of my schedule; I decide what works and what doesn’t. If I don’t feel comfortable about how something is coming out, I don’t have to do it. Because of these freedoms, I was able have a young woman of color on the cover of the book.
Another benefit to having my own imprint is the possibility of earning profits not just as the author, but as the publisher as well. So depending on how successful sales of the book are, that could be nice.
Now that you’ve accomplished your dream of publishing The Arts-Angels —a story that has lived in your heart since you were a teenager—what is your next big dream?
Since The Arts-Angels was always conceived of as a series, I don’t think of the publishing of the first book in the series as the accomplishment of my dream as much as I think of it as the public debut of that dream. I actually have eleven more books in mind to complete the series and have other book ideas on the back burner, including a mystery series for middle-graders, a graphic novel about superhero teens, and a stand-alone novel—with Latinas featuring prominently in those projects as well.
I have also long carried a wish deep within me to function as an arts advocate for young people. So, should The Arts-Angels become the success I hope it will, I’d love for the concept of “Arts-Angels” to expand and extend to include some kind of arts funding for schools, or to after-school arts programs and/or arts and rock music–themed “camp” experiences.
What is your advice to Latina professionals? What would be Gina’s advice to Latina students?
Hmmm. I think the only advice I would give to a fellow Latina professional is to never see your ethnicity as anything but an asset to achieving your goals; that the only person who can hold you back from pursuing your goals is yourself. Latinas are innately strong—realize this, hold on to this truth, and manifest it—or should I say womanifest it! How’s that for a slogan? Womanifest yourself!
As for Gina’s advice to Latina students . . .Well, I guess it would be similar to mine, as a running thread throughout the series is Gina’s quest for self-discovery. So maybe Gina would advise other Latina students to also go on a journey to find out who they are. This includes celebrating, not hiding, your ethnicity. (One’s cultural background adds so many interesting layers and dimensions to a person!) Find out about your heritage and personal family history, and be proud of being uniquely you—because you are a work of art! Or, to put it another way: Rock your destiny!
To learn more about Janel Rodriguez or her new book, The Arts-Angels Track 1: Drawn to You, visit www.theartsangels.com.
The Arts-Angels Track 1: Drawn to You is available at Amazon.com.