During the spring of 2014 my friend Valynne E. Maetani encouraged me to submit to the New Visions Award, a new award from publishers Tu Books, an imprint of Lee and Low. Valynne had won the year before for her critically acclaimed YA novel Ink and Ashes. The prize for first place included a publishing deal with Tu Books. I had two major hurdles to overcome before I was ready to submit a piece: the novel needed to be a fantasy, science fiction, or thriller. Up to that point, I had been a strictly realistic, contemporary aspiring author. I’d been tinkering with a contemporary YA novel since 2007 without much apparent success. And I say apparent because at the time, the personalized rejections from agents felt only like rejections. I was so ready to start my career as a writer! But I was the mom of four children under the age of seven, and I thought that I had no ideas for a magical story.
The second hurdle was one I don’t think I’ll ever overcome: I lost my mom to a sudden heart attack at the end of 2013. She was only fifty-four years old. She’d had me when she was still a teenager, and in a way, we grew up together. Although growing up there weren’t a lot of books around, she always filled our home with music and stories. She was my biggest cheerleader and worked tirelessly for my siblings and me to have an education. She always supported my dream of writing, and would watch my little children so I could have uninterrupted writing time. Without her, writing seemed impossible.
When Valynne told me about the New Visions Award, I wanted to say I was ready to try, but although I forced myself to think of a magical story, the words wouldn’t come. It wasn’t until I attended a workshop at the Writing for Young Readers and Illustrators conference that I saw the first spark for ON THESE MAGIC SHORES. In a fever-dream state, I wrote the first ten pages of a story about three sisters. The oldest was a cynical little thing who dreamed of becoming the first Latina president of the US and had a plan to achieve her goal. It all goes well until her mother goes missing.
My pages for the workshop ended when the sisters come home, and they realized the mom isn’t coming back. In my mind, I saw the sisters’ struggle. In my heart, I felt the pain and fear. Although I lost my mother as an adult, her absence was an open wound that hurt to breathe and do the most essential things, like think of stories and write, which has always been the way I process what happens to me. I poured these feelings into the words, but they came out dusted with a glow of magic and wonder I couldn’t explain.
My workshop leader was the one and only Cynthia Leitich-Smith. Her enthusiasm for the story and my workshop friends’ concern for my characters gave me the motivation to keep writing this story. After the workshop I went ahead and submitted three chapters for the contest. The second round wouldn’t be for several more months, but I didn’t think my story would make it that far. But I was writing again. Different stories. I even applied to and was accepted to the Masters in writing for children and young adults program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. To my utter surprise, the following January, editor Stacy Whitman emailed me to let me know my story was one of the three finalists, and that I needed to turn in the full draft by the second week of February.
I panicked. I was in my first semester at the MFA program. I was drowning in assignments and responsibilities. By now I had another child. Five children! I was tempted to let Stacy know that I wasn’t going to have a draft. That I was grateful for the opportunity, but I honestly wouldn’t be able to write the rest of the story. But in the corner of my mind, I saw Minerva Miranda, my spunky, cynical character, shaking her head at me, so disappointed that I was going to leave her stuck without a mother, without a chance at achieving her dreams, of discovering magic in every day life.
I couldn’t abandon her. I had a full synopsis, and in a frenzied dash, I completed the story and sent it to Stacy right before the deadline.
A couple of months later, I got a phone call from her, telling me that my book had won the honor, and although the prize didn’t include a publication deal, she was still interested in publishing the story.
In spite of the disappointment of not receiving the first-place recognition, I was grateful that this wasn’t the end of the journey for Minerva. By now it was the middle of 2015, and I was deep into my master’s program, learning more about the craft of writing than I had ever believed possible. In the years that followed, I went through two rounds of revision with Stacy, including the feedback of a wonderful sensitivity reader who guided me as I tackled the task of analyzing the racism in how the original Peter Pan story depicts Native American people. I wouldn’t get a formal offer from my editor until 2018, but during that time, I grew as a writer, and Minerva evolved as a character. The basic structure of the story remained the same. In fact, the very first and last pages have never changed although every other sentence of the book was re-written.
On These Magic Shores was scheduled to be published on April 21st, but because of the Covid-19 crisis, the launch day was pushed to June 9th.
But this time, I didn’t push against the hurdle. Instead, I embraced the extra weeks before my girls go out to the world, and like they taught me, I tried to see the magic in every day things. My mother loved fairies and miracles. She looked at the world with a childhood wonder that a hard life couldn’t dampen. I hope that when my readers meet Minerva, Kota, and Avi, they too may feel that magical glow of childhood that stays with us even after we sail away in our boats toward the rest of our lives.
This story was written over the period of a few months, but the journey to publication took years. It’s coming at the perfect time, though. In my life as a writer I’ve learned that success in publishing comes after a combination of hard work, talent, the support of a community, external forces, and a dash of fairy dust. And I’m grateful for that touch of magic that keeps glowing and illuminating my path to more stories waiting to be born.
Yamile Saied Méndez is obsessed with fútbol, magic, horses and books. She’s an Argentine American author of award-winning books. Among her titles are Where Are You From? (HarperCollins), Blizzard Besties, Random Acts of Kittens (Scholastic), the upcoming Furia (Algonquin Young Readers), Shaking Up the House (HarperCollins), and the anthology co-edited with Aida Salazar, Calling the Moon (Candlewick). She’s a founder member of Las Musas, a collective of women and non-binary authors. She lives in Utah with her husband, children, and pets. She holds a master’s degree from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adult Program and is also an alumna of Voices of our Nations (VONA). She’s represented by Linda Camacho from the Gallt and Zacker Agency. You can learn more about Yamile here and follow her on Twitter here and on Instagram here.