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Arts & Culture

Journaling through mental health, family and 7th grade in debut Newbery Honor book

The cover of "Iveliz Explains It All" is shown next to a photo of author Andrea Beatriz Arango.
Penguin Random House / Lily Graciela
The cover of "Iveliz Explains It All" is shown next to a photo of author Andrea Beatriz Arango.

Andrea Beatriz Arango is the author of the KPBS One Book One San Diego selection for teens, "Iveliz Explains It All." The book received a 2023 Newbery Honor Award. It follows a seventh grader, Iveliz, as she tries to navigate her mental health through the poetry she writes in her journal about each day, what she's going through, and her friends and family.

The book begins two years after a traumatic experience, and Iveliz's grief and the problems she continues to face are gradually revealed as the story progresses — but throughout it all, Iveliz is approachable, bright and funny as she learns how to speak her mind.

Arango will be in San Diego to read and discuss the book at 4 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 1 at the Vista Branch Library.


A virtual event will be livestreamed earlier in the day, from 10:30-11:30 a.m. Register here.

Arango joined KPBS' producer Julia Dixon Evans to discuss the book. The following interview has been lightly edited for length.

So this book is in verse, but it also takes the form of journal entries. This is such an enduring literary tradition, the novel in the form of letters. It made me curious what your relationship with journaling was like when you were younger. 

Arango: Yeah. I had a lot of journals. I've always loved to write in any way, shape or form, and I've always been not necessarily bad at communicating, but really bad at confrontation. So journaling was a way where I could kind of get my feelings out with kind of like — I believe — I guess now that I think about it, it was an easy way to, you know, not have to get grounded for saying something I shouldn't have; to, say, my parents or you know, getting into a big argument with friends. So I definitely journaled a lot and then eventually, when I got older I was a Tumblr girl so I blogged online. But yeah, I've always journaled either on paper or digitally, and lately I guess I haven't been journaling as much the past few years, but I think it's because I've been doing so much writing, and in a way it is a little bit like journaling.

I always tell kids when I do school visits that even though my books are fiction, every book has little bits and pieces of whatever I was going through at the time that I wrote it, because it's impossible not to. Everything around you makes you who you are at that moment. And so it'll naturally affect your perspective as you're writing as well. But yeah, always been a journaler for sure.


We learn that Iveliz is struggling with grief and her own mental health and that of her grandmother. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached covering that difficult ground for middle-grade and teen readers?

Arango: You know, I was writing this book during the height of the pandemic. So I was teaching middle school and then all of a sudden, we were all at home. If you were involved with schools back then, then you would know that no school knew what they were doing when we first closed down. And I was working with English language learners, and so they were particularly lonely — I think because their parents couldn't necessarily communicate with the school — everything was getting sent home virtually or on paper and most of it was in English or even if it was being translated, you know, not every student's parents could read in their native language and not all my students could either, so it was a very difficult time with a very serious lack of communication.

I think that really played a big role in me writing what Iveliz was going through and also just her relationship with her grandmother, because they're both really striving to have a connection with each other but they just kind of keep missing each other, you know, not necessarily knowing how to support each other the best and I think a lot of students were really going through that, the of the 2019-20 school year for sure.

Iveliz is Puerto Rican American. Her mother was born and raised in Puerto Rico — like you were. Can you talk about how your background influenced this book?

Arango: Well, if you read this book, you know it has a lot of Spanish in it. So that's definitely a big part of it. I did grow up in Puerto Rico. My family's all still there. And so when I talk to my family, it's always in Spanish and I really wanted to show that in the book. You'll notice that pretty much all the Spanish in the book is when Iveliz is talking to her mom or her grandmother, versus her friends who she just speaks English — so the language was a big part of it, (and) the food.

Her grandmother talks a lot about Puerto Rico and how hard it was to leave, which I definitely know firsthand. I've been in the States now for eight years and it was very hard to leave, and I think about all the time, you know, 'should I go back or should I stay?' And so that all, I think, plays a part in it, all the while trying to keep in mind that most of my readers obviously didn't grow up the way that I grew up and you know, most of the Puerto Ricans in the U.S. — specifically kids and teens in the U.S. — have been born here and grew up here and are oftentimes second or third generation, and they might know Spanish or they might not. So I was trying to balance kind of infusing it with the culture and the language and the connections that I grew up with, while still keeping in mind that Puerto Rico is not a monolith and the Puerto Rican experience is not a monolith. And so this is very much Iveliz's specific family dynamic, but it might not be everybody's.

More about family … Iveliz's grandmother, her Mimi, just moved in with them from Puerto Rico. Mimi has dementia, and there are generational differences there with the way Iveliz understands mental health and is struggling with her own, and how Mimi understands it. But of course Mimi's also this really big source of comfort for her. Can you talk a little bit about that balance right there?

Arango: Yeah, I think oftentimes when I read children's books; we get a lot of family characters where either the children are really close with their family members and they have like really, really supportive, perfect-on-paper parents or relatives — or it's a total opposite. And I really wanted to try to show that nuance that I think a lot of students are very intimately familiar with, which is being surrounded by adults who really love you and want the best for you, but don't necessarily know how to support you or how to align what you need with what they think you need, which is very tricky to balance always, you know for kids or adults, and so I was really trying to show that I don't think anyone would doubt whether Mimi or Iveliz's mom love her — like, it's very clear that they love her a lot, but they also still hurt her all the time, sometimes not on purpose, sometimes on purpose. You know, it's complicated. Family is complicated.

Second Chances
Why is it that principals
love giving second chances?
Love reminding me they were kids too?
Love acting like they're doing me a favor,
doing my mom a favor,
by sitting me down all serious
and asking what they can do?

Well, guess what.
This is seventh grade now,
and I don't need anyone's help but my own.
I've moved on from everything
that happened,
I've made lists and I've made goals,
and if I'm in the principal's office,
you can 100% bet
that it wasn't my fault.

Who can you trust?
If you ask my teachers,
they might say I'm a liar,
because I always insist
things are not my fault.

And if you ask my mom,
she might say que soy una dramática,
'cause she used to sometimes think
my old panic attacks
were about getting attention
and not an anxious brain response.

But, Journal,
don't listen to them,
because these right here?
They're my true inner thoughts.
And if you can't trust a girl and her poems,
who CAN you trust?
From "Iveliz Explains It All" by Andrea Beatriz Arango

As we heard, and you talked about earlier, the language is so crucial in this book, and I wanted to dig in a little more into how you play with Spanish and English. The Spanish is not immediately translated, but it gives enough context that it's understood — if not right away, then it will be in a line or two. And I think this is a reality for a lot of bilingual families and the children and those in those bilingual spaces. Can you talk about that a little bit, like the expectation you have with how young people of all language levels might understand this book? 

Arango: Yeah. Absolutely. I definitely was very intentional with when and how I use the Spanish. Like you said, it can all be figured out by context. Maybe not like every single word, but I always tell people — like trust me — nothing crucial to the story that you absolutely need to understand is getting put in Spanish. So if there's something you're not sure about, I mean a lot of people tell me that they will translate it, you know, just because they're curious and they want to know exactly what it said, but you definitely don't have to.

And I did my best to really have that context there and I think sometimes we don't give kids enough credit. We teach them how to figure things out by context when they're learning to read and they don't know what all the words mean or they can't decode all the words. So I think we can really trust them with other languages too because, like you said, that's the reality of the world.

I constantly read books that have languages that are not Spanish and that I'm not familiar with, and I love being able to get exposed to that, especially when they have audiobooks too. So "Iveliz (Explains It All)" has an audiobook, and it's very nice to listen to the Spanish I think — and actually it has an audiobook all in Spanish as well, of the Spanish translation, which is very exciting. But yeah, I really like to play with the languages and it was definitely a choice not to include a glossary or a direct translation. But I think the kids have got this, you know.

Q: Some of the toughest parts to read in this book were the parts during school with the way some of her classmates treated Iveliz. But also, the friendships that Iveliz could cling to are just really rich and well-developed. What does friendship mean to you in this book? And what did you want your readers to see in those friendships?

Arango: Yeah, I think similarly to how it was really important for me to show that complexity of like family love; I felt the same way about the friendships. To me, friendships are just as important as family relationships — as romantic relationships. And I think especially in middle school, friendships — they can be your whole world, but we don't always know how to be good friends, like being an active listener and being an intentional listener is really hard, especially when you have your own things going on. So I really wanted to show not just how we can sometimes fail at friendships, but how we can then communicate to cross those bridges and repair that damage. So Iveliz in the book is oftentimes not a very good friend to Amir, but you know, he calls her out on it, and they're able to have these conversations that I think we need to see more in media, not just in books, but movies and TV shows. Oftentimes friendship arguments get presented in this very confrontational dramatic way and I think all of us — not just kids, but adults too — need more models of how to have these healthy conversations when things go wrong because things will always go wrong at some point.

This book received a Newbery Honor this year, and that puts Iveliz alongside books like "Charlotte's Web," "Because of Winn Dixie'' and "Brown Girl Dreaming" — and this is your first book. So I'm wondering what that feels like, and does it change anything for you as you think back to what Iveliz meant to you as you wrote the book?

Arango: Yeah, it adds a whole lot of pressure. It is very overwhelming to win an award for your first book. At the same time, I feel very honored and very blessed because this book had a very soft debut, you know. It was my very first book, and we were still kind of going through it with COVID and kids were trying to go back to like a regular school year and all that — school visits were just starting up again. And so, a lot of people didn't know I existed, they didn't know that Iveliz existed, and winning something like the Newbery Honor definitely put me on the radar of a lot of schools and libraries that didn't know who I was before, and that has meant a lot of kids have now gotten access to the book — especially for free, you know through their schools and libraries, that would have never gotten a chance to read it before.

So for that, I think this book will always be just very, very special to me because it made me realize just how hard it is for books to be — I don't know how to explain it, like how before you get into publishing you kind of think like, 'oh your book is out in the world, now people can read it.' But it's very hard for people and especially kids to discover books. And I say especially kids because I write for middle schoolers and for kids in upper elementary school, and kids aren't going online and Googling books that they want to read and then shopping for them with their own credit cards, you know. They really rely on their parents and their teachers and their librarians. So to have something like the Newbery Honor happen really meant that a lot of kids are now reading "Iveliz (Explains It All)" who would have never read it before.

It's also the One Book, One San Diego 2023 selection for teens, and the intention with this program is to bring an entire region together through reading, through these books. What is something that you want the San Diego region to get out of this book?

Arango: You know, "Iveliz Explains It All" is so much about community, and finding your people and being able to communicate your truths and share your truths with those people, whether it's friends or family members people in your schools, you know, she has a lot of different circles kind of in the book. And what I think is really special about this kind of program is that similarly you're getting people to talk about things with each other that they might not have brought up before the conversations that happen in this book — especially about mental health can be so hard to start up sometimes, especially for kids. It's still a little taboo.

You know, every time I do a school visit, kids will come up and tell me, like very secretively like, 'oh, yeah, like I'm in therapy too,' or 'I take medication too,' but they don't necessarily talk to their friends about it or talk to other people openly about it. And so I think the wonderful thing about these kinds of programs is when everyone is reading the same book, it makes it way easier to talk about that book and then the book becomes a bridge to talk about these other things, like mental health that maybe these people wouldn't have had a conversation with each other about.