Debut author Carlos Matias pays homage to a time when pay phones lined city sidewalks and each call cost 25¢ in his picture book Emergency Quarters, illustrated by Gracey Zhang and based on Matias’s “Best of the Year” finalist entry to the New York Times's Metropolitan Diary. Every morning, when Ernesto leaves for school, his mother presses a quarter into his hand: “For emergencies.” While his peers spend their pocket money, Ernesto holds onto his daily coins, refusing to part with them for the treats at Señor José’s bodega or the tamales from Doña Tania’s truck—until an “emergency” at the barber shop at week’s end. In a conversation with PW, Matias reflected on his eclectic writing experience, the lasting impact of community, and the differences (and similarities) between the Queens of his childhood and today.

What has your debut experience been like so far?

I submitted the story that Emergency Quarters is based on to the New York Times’s Metropolitan Diary for fun. I honestly didn’t think it was gonna get into it. Then once it did, Mabel Hsu [formerly executive editor at Katherine Tegen Books] reached out to see if I was interested in turning it into a picture book. That was in 2021.

When I wrote the original story, it was something very personal. I really had no idea that anyone else would relate to it, or that one day bookstores would be reaching out to me and asking, “Do you want to come speak?” Reading my material out loud in public isn’t something I ever thought of doing as a writer.

I’ve always been a writer, though I was more of a food writer for magazines. But when you’re writing, your dream is to write a book, right? I never really thought that would happen, so it wasn’t like I was working toward that. I’ve experienced all these new things that I never imagined came with writing, but it’s all positive things, it’s stuff that, as a writer, you wish for, but you’re never prepared for. A lot of the time you spend writing, you don’t know where it’ll go. To see my work get to where it has—it’s been surreal.

How did developing a picture book compare to the food writing you’ve done for outlets such as Taste, Bon Appétit, and Edible Bronx?

It was very different. If you told me I was going to write a book in the future, I would have thought it’d be something longer, like a novel. So, when Mabel reached out [and said], “Turn it into a picture book,” I was like, “600 words? That’s nothing. I’m used to writing even more.” But I hadn’t read a picture book since I was young, so I had to go back and read a bunch, and after I’d done that, I was like, “This is harder than I thought.” It’s a completely different arena—every word, every sentence counts.

One thing that did help me is my day job as a copywriter for an advertising agency, where I write campaign headlines and tag lines and stuff like that. You have to write everything very succinctly. You have to tell the story very fast, and you don’t have much room. I didn’t even realize until I started writing, but as I was developing Emergency Quarters, I thought of every page like a small ad: it has its image, and every page has to tell a little story before kids turn to the next one.

How did it feel to watch Gracey Zhang bring Emergency Quarters to life through her illustrations?

She did such a great job. She’s amazing. I was not expecting it to look the way it came out—in the best way. She brought it to life, and everyone who’s seen it has told me the same thing. The story itself is set in the 1990s or early 2000s, and Gracey’s illustrations also had that feel to them. Someone told me that when they look at the book, it doesn’t look like something that came out today—it looks like it came out during that time. I think that’s so beautiful.

I never really thought about pairing images with my writing, so when I saw her drawings, I was completely blown away. Even when I saw the character sketches; I’m not gonna lie, it was pretty emotional. I spent such a long time building these characters and making Ernesto a little funny and mischievous, like a real kid, but to put a face to those characters and his friends and the bodega owner and the woman on the street selling empanadas, it was amazing. From the beginning, Gracey really wanted to bring forward the feel of where I grew up. She asked me for reference images, so a lot of the storefronts in the book are real storefronts in Corona.

What were some other key elements that you wanted to highlight about your upbringing?

I remember the music coming out of cars, the traffic, the honking. I might pass a building and smell the cooking coming out the windows. Those kinds of details were very important to me—not only the things you see on the page, but the stuff you can’t see, that you can only feel.

When it’s Friday and you get out of school, it just feels different outside. I knew I was going to stay out a little later with my friends, maybe playing basketball. I saw everyone getting ready for the weekend—everyone’s going to barber shops and the salons are full. I wanted to show community and the festive atmosphere that happens when the weekend’s coming.

Details were very important to me—not only the things you see on the page, but the stuff you can't see, that you can only feel.

I feel like growing up now is very different. I don’t know my neighbors. I feel like New York has become such a transient place where everyone’s like, “This is just a stop I’m making. I’m only here for a little bit.” They might leave. They might live in Brooklyn until it gets too expensive. Then they might find the new place in Queens that’s coming up, and they might move there.

Back in the day, we grew up in the same neighborhoods and we lived there for a long time. Everybody knew each other. You might be doing something with your friends that you’re not supposed to, and someone’s gonna tell your mom. So, when you get home, your mother says, “Somebody saw you on whatever boulevard,” and you’d get in trouble.

I’d walk into the bodega, and the owner would say, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school right now?” Or I’d see the same guy every time I visit, and I’d be like, “Does this guy work here?” No, he’s just friends with the owner, so he’s always around. It was really this third place where you could go and maybe see someone you know, strike up a conversation, and hang out.

What’s next for you?

I have another picture book I’m working on that takes place in the same environment as Emergency Quarters and has to do with a little bit of food, a little bit of culture. Once I’m done wrapping that up, I’ll send it out. I’m also working on a more food-focused book that’s basically a recipe book that’s all about Queens. People call Queens “The World’s Borough” because it’s one of the most diverse places in the world. I wanted to celebrate that through food.

Emergency Quarters by Carlos Matias, illus. by Gracey Zhang. HarperCollins/Tegen, $19.99 May 28 ISBN 978-0-06-327145-6