Pablo Cartaya’s third novel, Each Tiny Spark, is the first hardcover middle grade novel published by Penguin’s new Kokila imprint, whose mission is to “center stories from the margins.” The tale of 12-year-old Cuban-American Emilia and her strained relationship with her father, a returned Marine, Each Tiny Spark is a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of the immigrant experience, diversity within the Latinx community, and the growing pains of adolescence. Cartaya spoke with PW about the process of discovering Emilia’s story, the personal inspiration for the novel, and the importance of authentic representation.

From where did the idea for Each Tiny Spark originate?

My process is very visceral when I’m starting out. The first iteration of this book came to me in a vision of a girl wearing a welding mask, welding a car door together while her father looked on. I didn’t know what that meant, but I set about writing it down. I realized that this man had his arms crossed and a U.S. Marine Corps tattoo on his bicep. I noticed that the girl had very curly, reddish-auburn hair. I knew that her name was Emilia. This was how it started.

After a scene presents itself to me, I ask questions. What is this character doing? Why? And, to be clear, at this time I knew absolutely nothing about welding. At all. I did know that the car, however, was a 1968 Mustang Shelby GT350. It was very specific. I love this act of discovery; this is what I feel writing is. As I was discovering the reasons for this scene and what was happening, I expanded out to the town. I realized immediately that they lived in a small town in Georgia.

I believe that we as writers must dig in deeply to our subject matter to bring authenticity.

I determined that they were Cuban-American. An abuela popped in. Now, abuelas run rampant in my books because, to be honest with you, that’s my culture. The abuela character in Cuban-American culture is a very strong, nuanced character. Sometimes it’s the abuela that is very nurturing and loving and sometimes it’s the abuela who comes after you with la chancla. Sometimes it’s the abuela who has put so many barriers up that she seems cold and distant —this is the abuela that presented herself to me.

That was the cast. And, as I was writing, I realized it was a story about a community, family, and, ultimately, a father and a daughter finding their way back to each other again. I had no idea this was what I was setting out to write when I began; it happened in the process.

Why did you decide to highlight Emilia’s relationship with her father? Did your personal life influence your choice to write characters with ADHD and PTSD? Has your own daughter read the book?

Emilia, the daughter in this story, is 12 and a half years old and my daughter is 12 and a half. I realized that 12 is an age where my kid is going through a lot of changes. She’s finding her voice in many ways, and sometimes it’s very difficult for me to understand her, but I want to do right by her. Last night, she came into the room and plopped on top of me and pecked me on my cheek. I was kind of like, “Oh my God, oh my God.” I started hugging her and she said, “Papi, don’t be weird.” She got up, looked at me and said, “I don’t know why I did that,” and then just walked out of the room. [laughs] She’s becoming her own person and I’m trying to navigate our communication so that, as she gets older, she feels confident that she has the support of her father. I realized that’s what I was writing. I was writing a love letter to my kid.

My daughter has read Each Tiny Spark! Another layer is that the main character, Emilia, has ADHD and my daughter also has ADHD. There’s a negative stigma so, when my daughter was younger, she was always quick to assure people that she wasn’t dumb. Being a different kind of learner does not mean that her brain isn’t firing on all cylinders. I found it interesting to explore a character who shared these similarities with my daughter. Readers are dropped in well after Emilia and her family have diagnosed her ADHD. They’ve taken the steps to ensure that Emilia has the tools for success, and they embrace her exceptionality.

The book took a tremendous amount of research. I believe that we as writers must dig in deeply to our subject matter to bring authenticity. I’m very fortunate to be publishing with Kokila because the whole mission of the imprint is to center stories from the margins. Authenticity readers were brought in. I joined the American Welding Society and took classes. For the ADHD component of the book, I worked with the Child Mind Institute and watched videos from the American Psychological Association. I met with my daughter’s doctor and discussed exceptionalities and asked for help deciphering jargon. Sometimes I would spend three hours on research for one paragraph. It’s not enough to just read four Wikipedia pages; it’s hours upon hours of making sure that the information you’re presenting is real and authentic.

Why were you drawn to publishing Each Tiny Spark with Kokila? Do you feel it’s been a different publishing experience compared to your first two books?

There are two sides to this! I’ve had the same editor for all my books, the incomparable Joanna Cárdenas. We’re going on four books together. As an author, you can only dream of being with an editor who pushes the boundaries of your creativity, and I have that with my editor. When I was asked to move to Kokila, she was also moving to Kokila. But here is the interesting thing: when this book came out and the mission of Kokila became evident, we turned on the jets.

We were always trying to write authentic Latinx stories that represent the children living in this country with Latinx backgrounds, but with Kokila we turned it up. We wanted to get really, really deep and to create a story that would resonate with people from marginalized communities. We decided to talk about colorism within the Latinx community, ADHD within the Latinx community, PTSD within the Latinx community, and immigration. It’s the first hardcover middle grade book for the Kokila imprint, which is an incredible honor. So, yeah, we’re going to send out a story set in a small fictional town in northern Georgia where redistricting is happening and there’s a girl with ADHD who’s trying to figure out where she fits in and that she has a voice⁠—a story about a girl who finds her way back to her father by welding a car with him.

In crafting stories for young readers, what is your personal mission?

Quite simply, to tell the truth. To have a young person step out of the world of my novels and say, “I know that experience. I know what that feels like.” To have them walk around with the knowledge that their voice matters. I’ve been given a tremendous privilege and I don’t take it lightly. I treat writing books for young people very seriously because it’s an honor to share and to give them something to hold on to.

Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya. Kokila, $16.99 Aug. 6 ISBN 978-0-4514-7972-3