Remember the “yo mama” jokes from years ago? If you’re a child of the 80s or 90s, you probably threw out a few “yo mama” jokes from time to time.
“Yo mama” was an inside joke many of us turned to for a good chuckle. And now, years later, many of us are on the other side of the joke. We’re the mamas, and now some of those phrases have a whole new meaning, which is exactly what author NoNieqa Ramos is playing up in her new children’s book called Your Mama, out on April 6th. This stunningly clever picture book, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, is a sweet ode to mamas everywhere, spinning the age-old “your mama” joke on its head.
This book doesn’t make fun of moms but rather celebrates fierce mamas everywhere with playful lyricism and gorgeous illustrations. Instead of finding ways to poke fun or make sarcastic comments, this book honors moms for all they are and all they do. With sweet lines such as “yo’ mama so sweet, she could be a bakery. She dresses so fine, she could have a clothing line,” the book literally takes a classic joke and flips it around to express love, admiration, respect, and gratitude for moms.
If you’re wondering, “why didn’t I think of that?” then we’re right there with you. The short answer is we can’t all be as creative and clever as author NoNieqa Ramos.
A writer and educator, NoNieqa is already a force in the world of YA and teen fiction. She wrote The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary, a 2018 New York Public Library Best Book for Teens, a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection, and a 2019 In the Margins Award Top Ten pick. Your Mama is her first picture book, and it has already earned a starred review from School Library Journal.
In addition to her writing projects, NoNieqa is also a part of Las Musas Book collective, the first-ever community of women and non-binary (identifying on the female spectrum) Latinx middle-grade (MG), picture book (PB), and young adult (YA) authors. Las Musas is on a mission to bring authors together in an effort to support and amplify each other’s debut or sophomore novels in US children’s literature.
Your Mama is uniquely playful and lyrically beautiful, seamlessly blending English text with Spanish words to create a diverse picture of motherhood that Latinx moms will relate to. And the illustrations bring the story to life in such a colorful, heartwarming, bright, and inclusive way, all thanks to the artistic mastery of Jacqueline Alcántara.
Jacqueline has a gift, and work isn’t just beautiful, but it’s done to promote inclusiveness and diversity in children’s literature and the illustration field in general.
Her debut picture book, The Field, written by Baptiste Paul, was named a Best Book of 2018 by School Library Journal, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, and Shelf Awareness. Freedom Soup, a book written by Tami Charles, has been named a Kids IndieNext Pick, a Kirkus Best Book of 2019, and has received four starred reviews. Jacqueline is one to watch, and together with the powerful words from NoNieqa, this book shares a happy, heartwarming, positive, and diverse message for moms and women of color everywhere.
Your Mama is a touching tribute to moms that really resonates at a time when moms need more love than ever, and inclusivity is so important. The pandemic has been a challenging year for so many people, but moms bear the brunt of the burden in many ways, which is why it’s so unique that this book perfectly honors mamas with lyrical gems that will make them smile.
We sat down to chat with NoNieqa and Jacqueline about their work, their inspirations, their goals, their advice to aspiring Latinx writers and illustrators, and the need for diversity and inclusion in children’s literature.
How did you first get the idea to write an ode to motherhood inspired by the classic “yo mama” jokes?
NoNieqa: My papi, who always carried a brick-thick sci-fi book, always said, “Never stop learning.” My own experience as an educator amplified my father’s mantra that knowledge is never an endpoint. I have always admired my partner, who reads for pleasure and rereads for craft. My inspiration for Your Mama began with homework.
I read, relished, and studied piles of picture books with my child. On my office chalkboard, I scribbled myself the assignment to approach a concept or narrative with a fresh perspective. I let the idea germinate for a few weeks before it parachuted over our German Shepherd Rocky, umbrellaed across the barbecue pit still redolent with Adobo-coated pork chops slathered in mesquite sauce, and descended into the rose garden of my childhood. I thought, what if, what if I could flip the script of yo’ mama jokes?
I was raised in the Bronx in Black and Latinx (nonBlack and AfroLatinx) culture and specifically, in a Puerto Rican household, where humor, verbal agility, and mental toughness were valued. I grew up watching shows like Good Times, The Apollo, Saturday Night Live, and the Phylicia Rashad Show. Maybe we didn’t know laughter reduces levels of stress hormones like cortisol and boosts endorphins, neurotransmitters, and infection-fighting antibodies, but we knew intuitively that laughter was a clap back, an escape, a release. A cleansing and collective breath of understanding and community. Even if just for a second, that second of laughter, that 1⁄86400 of a day, supplied medicine, meaning, context, purpose, and drive. My father cracked up laughing when I shared my title Your Mama. The idea to write this book is firmly rooted in my Bronx and Boricua upbringing. My ultimate inspiration came from the desire to celebrate the mamas who orchestrate laughter, the music of love.
In my life, this was my father, who was both father and mother, and who sometimes didn’t eat, so me and my sister could be fed. And these were the tías, the Bronx-bred Boricuas like him who prevailed over broken homes, poverty, systemic racism and sexism, and somehow between pulverizing glass ceilings and bringing their fellow Latinx with them, still found time to take us – their children and the cousins – to Tibbets Park. Shout out to la tía who took me to Elizabeth Seton College to interview me about my poetry on her college radio show – I was about eleven years old and talked a lot about my love of thesauruses lol. I do not stand on the ground. I stand on their shoulders.
What do you hope mothers (and children, and everyone really) will take away from this book?
NoNieqa: I want Latinx mamas, BIPOC mamas, single mamas, and all mamas to feel seen and revered. When they turn each page, I want them to turn the pages of their own memories and cherish all that they do for their children, their godchildren, their nieces, and nephews, and all that they are. I hope mamas revisit memories of the beloved women who have influenced and inspired them in their own lives.
All mamas and in particular, marginalized mamas, need to deal with our generational trauma, but we also need to celebrate generational resilience and joy. Despite all the tribulations of my relationship with my biological mother, when I hold this book, I hold the memory of her gifting me my first illustrated dictionary, taking me to the now-closed Coliseum Bookstore on 57th Street and Broadway to buy Little Women and Jane Eyre, teaching me to smash apples against trees to attract herds of deer on our short-lived trips to the Poconos. I hope Your Mama is a space for mamas to revel in pride and jubilation.
When children turn the pages of Your Mama, I want them to experience the reverence I devote to their mothers. I hope they know that my ode and valentine to their mamas is my ode and valentine to them. Into every page, I tried to tuck the message, “See how much you are loved, little one? See how special you are?” Self-esteem and pride are inextricably tied to our families and our caregivers. In a clap back to society’s monolithic, stereotypical representation of Latinx women, I want all children to see this mother of color in her beauty, in her strength, in her creativity, in her kindness, in her power. I hope children will see this beauty, strength, creativity, kindness, and power embodied in themselves. A mama’s eyes are a child’s first mirror.
Jacqueline: Well, since I’m not a mom yet, I still have the perspective of looking at motherhood through the rose-colored glasses of a child! So, I ran with that perspective and wanted the mom to embody almost a superhero look at times – doing all the things that need to be done and saving the world at the same time! My mom is the most positive, supportive person in the world, and I thought a lot about how she made even the smallest of things – like a trip to the library – into a much bigger experience. She instilled a curiosity and appreciation in all the small things in life and from NoNieqa’s words, this mom was doing the same, so she had to also be dancing, singing, and twirling throughout. Celebrating each and every moment together.
You use a mix of English and Spanish lyricism as well as diverse illustrations throughout the book. How does this help you both speak to your audience in an inclusive way?
NoNieqa: It is important to me that non-Spanish-speaking Latinx children feel safe, respected, and valued. Even if they don’t speak fluent Spanish like myself, they deserve exposure and access to their cultural roots. Maybe their tongue hesitates, but their heart knows the words.
It is important to me that Spanish-speaking Latinx children feel safe, respected, and valued. Children who speak Spanglish deserve comfort, security, and dignity. Those children with an accent? I want to tell them that EVERYBODY has one and that a Spanish accent is music. I want to tell every beautiful brown bilingual child they are so smart. To the children who code switch, I want to tell them they are a poet in the making.
For the non-Spanish-speaking, non-Latinx child? No worries; no te preocupes. Jacqueline and I created a glossary for you. Listen to the crack, snap, and pop of my words. Let them quench your thirst. I want every kid in the room to know I am speaking to them, honoring them, taking them on a journey and rhythm and celebration.
Jacqueline: Kids have fantastic imaginations but actually seeing characters, cultures and stories that are reflections of themselves is extremely powerful for a sense of self-worth, pride and aspiration. It’s equally important for parents and other adults to buy and read books with black and brown kids as the main characters. To reaffirm that all kids – regardless of your skin tone – are curious, smart, innocent, silly and beautiful. We still have such a big need for more “normal” or “everyday” books – just like Your Mama – that celebrate life, relationships and the curiosities of growing up that naturally and effortlessly have Latinx characters.
Tell us about Las Musas, and why it’s so important to be a part of a collective of Latinx children’s authors. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
NoNieqa: “On August 28, 2018 Las Musas debuted with 12 members (J.C. Cervantes, Tami Charles, Mia García, Isabel Ibañez, Michelle Ruiz Keil, Tehloy Kay Mejia, Yamile Saied Méndez, Nina Moreno, Claribel Ortega, Emma Otheguy, Laura Pohl, and Aida Salazar) and has now grown to over 70 members encompassing Debut Musas, Madrinas, and Hermanas.” These 12 members were the original mothers of the first collective “of women and non-binary (identifying on the female spectrum) Latinx middle-grade (MG), picture book (PB), and young adult (YA) authors to come together in an effort to support and amplify each other’s debut or sophomore novels in US children’s literature.”
After the announcement of my sophomore book The Truth Is, I was honored to receive an invitation from author Emma Otheguy to join Las Musas. Las Musas, whose “mission is to spotlight the new contributions of Las Musas in the evolving canon of children’s literature and celebrate the diversity of voice, experience, and power in our communities” aligns perfectly with my own. Writing for me is a platform to fight for social justice. Every word I write replaces despair with hope. Becoming a member of Las Musas was not just joining a marketing collective, but a sisterhood, and a movement. Together we are empowered to advance Latinx and LGBTQIA+ literature and representation, to fight against white supremacy and systemic racism and advance equity for ourselves and all marginalized people.
My advice to writers is that community is always the answer. We cannot be unlearners, learners, disrupters and rebuilders, and antiracists in isolation. In community, you access information, knowledge, insight, wisdom, the opportunity for course correction, and growth. Especially in a career fraught with rejection, the community is vital for mental health and emotional support. My deep friendships with writers Mia García (shout out to her books The Resolutions and Even if the Sky Falls) and Alexandra Villasante (shout to her Lambda-wining debut The Grief Keeper) were my anchors over this pandemic in my personal and creative life.
How did you first decide to become an illustrator? What was your path to this creative career?
Jacqueline: Well, I was laid off from my teaching job and decided to give it a shot! I really wanted to try being a “working artist” (as I had been preaching to my students!) but I never felt comfortable in the art gallery scene and that was only space for an artist that I was aware of at that time. I stumbled upon “illustration” from a friend and was intrigued so decided to take a class. Once I learned a bit more – I immediately felt like this was my place as an artist. I love telling visual stories, love the collaboration of making books, love the stylistic freedom, and love how much I learn and grow with each project.
How can authors, illustrators, and parents all work together to promote more inclusivity in children’s books?
Jacqueline: For parents, an easy (and free!) way to make a big impact is to request specific diverse books at your local library and children’s school library! Also, take a look through your home library to see what kind of imagery your kids are looking at. As a reader, I’m really trying to make a more conscious choice in books I read – to seek out #ownvoices stories. I know the power of a single book purchase and I want my dollars to go to publishers, authors, and illustrators who are telling authentic stories.
Your Mama will be available on April 6th at all major book retailers.