The Dominican-American novelist and poet Julia Alvarez finds herself in a period of reinvention. Her retirement from teaching, after 28 years at Vermont’s Middlebury College, coincides with the end of another personal era. This spring, she made a final visit to her parents’ home in the Dominican Republic, a bittersweet trip that provided a “deep immersion in the past,” she says. The house has been sold; the buyer plans to demolish it to make room for new development. Alvarez’s father was the youngest in a family of 25 children and the “last to go.”
“When you come from a huge extended family, it feels like a whole generation began dropping off like flies,” Alvarez says. “Watching and being part of that loss strips you down to the kind of emotion and the kind of questions a child might have.”
In her closing keynote at CI 4, Alvarez will talk about how she processed her grief by turning to poetry, resulting in a new picture book, Where Do They Go? (Triangle Square, Sept.), illustrated by Sabra Field, a Vermont artist.
Though Alvarez is probably best known for her award-winning novels How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of Butterflies for adults and the Pura Belpré Award winner Before We Were Free for young readers, she had trouble even reading novels while she grieved. “The clutter of so much language! I felt like a cranky old lady,” she says. “I wrote poetry because it was all I could bear to do.”
Writing is how Alvarez thinks and the method she uses to get outside of herself. “It is a way to become a bigger version of myself,” she says. She encourages children’s booksellers to help their young customers also imagine the world from different points of view. “When you’re a kid, what you read gives you a blueprint for the way you’ll see the world,” she says. “Stories are so important for children because they help structure their understanding of the world beyond what they’re given.”
Alvarez also feels strongly about diversity in works offered to young readers. “Diversity enriches all of us by making the storytelling circle wider and richer. When you read about others, you become them in a way. It’s just so powerful.”
Julia Alvarez will give the closing keynote on Thursday, June 23, 2–3 p.m., in the Salon E Ballroom.