In René Colato Laínez’s Mamá the Alien/Mamá la extraterrestre, a girl named Sofía is convinced her mother is from outer space when she finds a card in her wallet with the word “ALIEN” atop it. Colato Laínez knows a thing or two about this kind of confusion. “When my mother, who was born in El Salvador,” he says, “was able to get her United States Resident card, I was shocked that it said Resident Alien. ‘Look, mamá. Now you have legal papers, but you are still an alien,’ I told her.”
Sofía heads to the library to do some research on extraterrestrials. She wonders how Mamá can have the face and hands of a “normal human mother,” while simultaneously figuring that she, herself, is half alien. She soon learns she’d seen her mother’s old Resident Alien card and, later, joins Mamá at the ceremony where she officially becomes a citizen of the U.S.
Colato Laínez took a break from his next project, another bilingual picture book, to talk about what inspired him to tell Sofía’s story.
In addition to writing, you teach at a bilingual school and have had students who experienced the same misunderstanding as Sofia. Were they a direct inspiration for this story?
Many of my ideas to write picture books have been born in my kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms. All of my students are Hispanic. The majority of my students were born in the United States, but their loved ones come from other countries.
The media—including television, radio, print, and now the Internet—uses the words “Illegal Aliens” or “Resident Aliens”or just “Aliens” when they refer to people who were born in a country other than the United States. My students are always confused to hear this term, because their relatives do not look like aliens from outer space. They look like human beings. I have had many discussions about the term “alien” with my students, and I always tell them that we, immigrants, are not really aliens. We are all children of planet Earth. Today in the United States, one in four children in our elementary schools has a parent born in another country—and even more with grandparents born in other countries. I hope the universal message about all being children of planet Earth is shared in all classrooms.
This book would also be useful for students born here (with parents born here) who have never thought about citizenship status and the use of the word "alien." Was that also important to you as you wrote this?
The beauty of multicultural books is that they open new doors and windows for readers who are outside the culture. They can live, explore, and enjoy other cultures as they read amazing stories. For the majority of children and adults who were born in the United States, an “alien” is indeed someone from outer space, and they do not associate it with immigrants or immigrant status. For me, as a writer of multicultural children’s literature, it is always important to write authentic stories where my readers can learn and discover the immigrant experience and the experience of living in two cultures.
Do you think that your teaching informs your writing in any other ways?
My teaching and writing are connected. I want my students to be proud of who they are. The color of their skin, their native language, their culture and delicious foods, their families and communities make them special. I always tell my students that being bilingual is a double treasure, because they can communicate with more people around the world, and that living in two cultures is so great—because they have double the fun.
What was it like for you to see Laura Lacámara’s illustrations for the first time? I like how she gives Mamá a place of origin in one tiny thought-bubble illustration on one of the spreads.
I first met Laura at a SCBWI conference when both of us were eager to publish children’s books. Laura is so talented, and I always hoped that she might illustrate one of my books. I was so happy when my editor at Lee & Low, Louise May, shared the great news that she was the illustrator of my book.
When I saw the art for the first time, I was so happy with her work. I was especially touched by the spread where the mother is standing in El Salvador. In the text, it is assumed the mother is from Latin America, but it does not reference El Salvador. Laura knows my story and my love for my country—the smallest country in the Americas, yet the one with the biggest heart. I thank Laura for this detail. It touched my heart and was a wonderful gift to me.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.