Although 15-time Emmy Award-winner and Pura Belpré Honoree Sonia Manzano (The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano; Becoming Maria) retired from her celebrated role as Maria on Sesame Street back in 2015, her role as a children’s book author is still going strong. “I have always enjoyed taking complex issues and breaking them down for younger people to understand,” she told PW. “That was certainly a tenet of Sesame Street.” Last October, Manzano signed a four-book deal with Scholastic to publish two middle-grade novels and two picture books starting in 2022. First up is the historical novel Coming Up Cuban, due out next April, which marks Manzano’s return to writing middle-grade fiction. PW has the exclusive cover reveal, as well as some behind-the-scenes insight on the book’s development from Manzano and her editor, v-p and executive editor Andrea Pinkney.
Set in 1959, Coming Up Cuban follows the lives of four children, Ana, Miguel, Zulema, and Juan, who each represent different intersections of race and class in Cuba—and thus, a unique set of experiences—during Fidel Castro’s rise to power. When asked if she had always planned on writing the novel from the perspectives of multiple children, Manzano revealed that she developed those voices later on in the writing process. “There were many versions of the story, told from many perspectives,” Manzano said. “I even wrote one version from the point of view of a dog! I can tell you that trying to write about the Bay of Pigs event from a dog’s point of view wasn’t easy.”
Finding the right perspectives to serve as the vehicle for the narrative proved key, and according to Pinkney, “As soon as [Sonia] presented the stories of Ana, Miguel, Zulema, and Juan, everyone on our team was taken with these characters’ plights and dreams.” When asked to elaborate on what sets Coming Up Cuban apart from other middle-grade titles, Pinkney said, “Coming Up Cuban illuminates the singular storytelling gifts Sonia has brought to children throughout the world, for half a century. In this book, she brilliantly weaves the stories of four children enduring an unsettling period in human history, each growing through their respective and overlapping experiences. These come together to create one story of hope. The lives and plights of these children reach deep into the souls of every reader, and will resonate for decades to come.”
While Pinkney noted that Coming Up Cuban “was born out of many conversations, stemming from Sonia’s desire to present history, heritage, and heart in a novel for young readers,” the inspiration for the novel initially sprang from research Manzano did for another project. “I delved into Cuban history while trying to round out a simple picture book idea, that took place in Cuba,” Manzano said. “Reading about the Revolution was so intriguing, it made me put my picture book idea aside.” It was one particular area of Cuban Revolution history, however, that ultimately served as the basis for the novel’s premise and point of view characters. “I was stunned by the fact that more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors were sent to the U.S. under a program dubbed Operation Pedro Pan. Then I read testimonials of families forced to abandon lives and property. My next obvious question was, what became of youngsters who stayed behind? What happened to their lives as the Castro regime took hold?” Chasing the answer to those questions allowed Manzano to create the characters that form the heart of her novel and present a range of struggles young Cubans would have experienced at the time.
As Coming Up Cuban needed to bring to life a specific time period, Manzano’s research process while crafting the novel involved total immersion in related source material. “I read every book, saw every movie, documentary, and news show about that time,” Manzano said. “And, of course, I chatted with Cuban friends and consulted Cuban scholars.” When Scholastic asked for her requests regarding the novel’s cover, Manzano again turned to her research. “I dug up photos I had copied at the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami Libraries and shared them with Andrea,” she said. In the event that Coming Up Cuban depicted its four main characters on the cover, Manzano wanted their individuality to show. “I realized how important it was to me that the reader know these four characters were of different races and social classes,” she said. “Ana and Miguel are white, but she is middle-class and he is wealthy. Zulema, from the rural peasant class, is a combination of Caribbean races; and Juan is urban poor and Afro-Cubano. If they were to be depicted it was important that they have the diversity of racial features I had imagined.”
Of the book’s cover artist, Manzano said, “I was delighted when artist Nicole Medina was chosen. The process of creating a book cover is stirring in that you present a swirl of words, images and emotions to the artist, in the hopes that they see things as you do—yet you hope they create an image you never could have imagined. Book cover artists always surprise me, when they show me what I meant. When I see the book cover that makes me feel as if I were meeting a best friend for the first time—I know it’s right.”
As for Manzano’s hopes for Coming Up Cuban once it reaches readers, she discussed the book’s potential to bring about connection upon its deal announcement last year. “Social upheavals affect everyone. I wanted to write a novel that examined the impact the 1959 Cuban Revolution had on four children. Through these four separate life stories, I hope our readers see how interconnected we all are, regardless of any tumultuous times we might be living in.” In speaking to PW, she added, “Though I’m Puerto Rican and not Cuban, I felt great empathy for the young people who managed to rise past Castro’s shadow. I hope readers feel the same kind of connection.”
Coming Up Cuban by Sonia Manzano. Scholastic Press, $18.99 Apr. 2022 ISBN 978-1-338-06515-2