Juan Felipe Herrera, the current (and first-ever Latino) U.S. Poet Laureate, has signed a four-book deal with Candlewick Press. The deal, brokered by Kendra Marcus of Bookstop Literary Agency and executive editorial director and associate publisher Liz Bicknell, includes IMAGINE, a poem turned picture book which Herrera wrote shortly after his inauguration as Poet Laureate in May 2015; two bilingual board books, Close/Cerca and Far/Lejos; and Jabberwalking, a middle-grade book that charts Herrera’s writing process and the act of walking.

“I was drawn to Juan Felipe’s work because his use of language, which is really free and spontaneous and has a jazzy rhythm to it. There’s also an open-heartedness about it,” said Liz Bicknell of Candlewick. The big draw of the deal for Bicknell was IMAGINE, which uses Herrera’s own autobiographical story to inspire young people to think what they could do. “Often I get submissions and I don’t have a vision for them,” Bicknell said. “They can be good but don’t spark anything in me. I felt very determined that this was going to be a great match for us.”

Herrera told PW that the Candlewick deal “marks a whole new stage in my writing life. It’s been a goal of mine to reach very young children.” IMAGINE, which began first as a poem written upon his inauguration, “marks my becoming the poet laureate of the United States. Being able to write from my beginnings all the way to this point – it’s a writer’s dream for true. It’s many dreams in one dream.”

When asked about diversity in children’s literature, Herrera said, “It’s a breakout moment that we are living in right now for writers of color. I’m so glad Candlewick is moving in that direction. It’s happening everywhere, for all peoples. It’s taken quite a while to get to this point, but it’s a good thing for everybody. Diversity really means becoming complete as human beings all of us. We learn from each other. If you’re missing on that stage we learn less. We all need to be on that stage.”

Likewise Candlewick is devoted to that cause. “Like many other publishers we are trying to increase our diversity and we have a dedicated Spanish-language editor here,” said Bicknell. “It’s important for children to see themselves reflected in the illustrations of a book and in the experiences depicted in the text. It’s about increasing the range for everyone.”

As a child Herrera said he read mostly used books, and his mother, a farmer with a third-grade education, “read everything she could for me,” said Herrera, from fairy tales to newspaper clippings to a National Geographic book on Mount Kilimanjaro. But they were all in English. “What I really had was stories, the oral traditions of my parents,” he said. “We moved so much that that was really our encyclopedia. A dream world told to me from my parents in the living room.”

For Herrera, having read a book as a child like the ones he’s putting out with Candlewick “would have been revolutionary for me. If I got so much from those secondhand books which were all in English about subjects that my mother just happened to be able to purchase, I have no idea what it would have been like to read books like these. It would have been star fuel. Not jet fuel. Star fuel. I would have broken the sound barrier in terms of my imagination.”