Q&A with Yamile Saied Mendez – Natural Self Esteem

Horse Country has room for everyone – that’s the inspiring belief that drives Yamile Saied Méndez’s new Horse Country mid-range series. The central protagonists are two sixth-grade girls, each with a Latinx father and a white mother, but from vastly different economic backgrounds: Carolina Aguasvivas grew up on the ranch in Idaho that her father manages, and Chelsie Sanchez, whose Mother the ranch is new owner, has ambitious plans for its future. The series debuts today with can not be tamed; a sequel, friends like this, will be published in June. Méndez, who lives in Utah, is a busy author who has a variety of picture, middle school, young adult and adult books on her list with more on the way. She spoke to PW about horses, tween drama and the smells of a freshly cleaned barn.

You talked about wanting to go beyond the traditional depictions of horse-loving children in middle school books– not only in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of income levels. How did this idea lead to the series?

Series like The Saddle Club and Canterwood Crest are so popular, but we only see stories about people who have access to competitions and formal tuition. Out here in the west, horses are a part of everyday life – they’re daily companions – and I had never seen that kind of story being told.

But it was kind of an organic thing – I didn’t have a five-year career plan that involved writing this series. I’m always imagining stories that I might never have time to write and I have characters to play with in my head. As I began writing stories with Scholastic and developing a relationship with my editor, Olivia Valcarce, Horse Country began to take shape in my mind.

I was born in Argentina on the plains where there are a lot of horses – polo is the big sport there, not football. But I never had access to horses because my family didn’t have the financial means. There wasn’t much to do during the pandemic, so I signed up for riding lessons. I live in a tiny town in Utah and it’s horse country too; There are many ranches and riding schools. Olivia saw photos of me riding on social media and told me she loved horses too – that her dream was to work on a horse book. When we were working on my third book, If you want a strayand she asked my agent [Linda Camacho] send her a proposal, a synopsis and a couple of chapters. And we rode it.

It’s always been a series for me because there’s so much material and so many stories to tell, not just with these two girls, but with the other characters as well. And horses are a constant theme. I would like to explore what happens as the girls get older and then reach a point where they have to decide whether they will continue to be “horse people” or if it’s something they will leave behind in childhood.

You’ve lived in Utah for 25 years – why did you decide to base the books in Idaho?

Because it is beautiful! It’s just breathtakingly beautiful. There are enough similarities between Utah and Idaho that I didn’t have a hard time recreating the area. It was fun throwing this little curveball – to give my readers a new place to read.

Both girls have a white mother and a latino father. Why was that an important aspect of their characters?

We don’t see much of this mixed identity in fiction; It’s very, very common where I live. I wanted to show what it’s like when fathers represent the same culture [both men have Argentine roots]but one lives with his daughter, and one lives far away. [Chelcie’s parents are divorced; the father is a famous Argentinean polo player.] It gave me an opportunity to show how two girls can come from a similar background and yet be very different. Also, both characters deal with looking very different from their mothers and how that affects their sense of identity.

You write so impressively about the hard work and sensual rewards of life on a horse farmFor example, how a clean barn goes from a dung smell to a smell of eucalyptus and lemon. Did you feel that kind of detail was missing from the genre?

When I was planning the series, I delved into a lot of horse-related media, particularly the 1990s-2000s: Saddle Club, Pony Tails, the TV series heartland. There are some universal aspects of horse life, but I was also keen to capture the details that are purely typical of the American West. I wanted to make this world so real that when the readers close the book they will miss Paradise Ranch so much that they will want to return!

Those sensory details – they’re so special for a barn. You just don’t forget this smell, it sticks in your memory. Not many readers will have the opportunity to experience these things in real life, so I’ve done my best to recreate it through words.

It is hard work that never ends because you are working with a living being. You can’t take a break because you’re tired. I don’t live on a farm but it’s one of my lifelong dreams – although I wonder if I really want to because it’s so much work!

I intend to dig deeper and deeper into farm life as I work on book four. It is set in summer, a busy time of the year on a farm – summer is so eagerly awaited and so fleeting.

The dynamic of tween girls is hard to get right in fiction – you have to be empathetic and realistic. How did you approach these scenes?

I went to an all-girls school growing up, and I don’t remember as much girl drama as I saw my daughters do. But every time I talk to the friends I went to school with, they remind me how intense it was [laughs].

I did my MFA thesis [at Vermont College of the Arts] On the representation of puberty in the middle school literature. When we talk about puberty and girls, we think of periods, but all of these things happen in the brain as well. Social relationships are so important: if you’re a tween, some of these issues do feel like life or death. And there are conflicts of forced closeness – you have to go through school with the same people for many years. In my book, you must also live on the same property.

I have five kids and now my youngest is in fourth grade and I’m seeing what best friends go through again: some days they make love and then they fight and they don’t talk for two weeks. They’re just practicing for life in the real world in their little universe.

You have written two picture books (what will you be and Where do you come from?) and a series of intermediate level books (recently Wish Upon a Stray). What do you like best about each shape?

I love that I can examine the same issues through different lenses and different scopes. In a picture book I can only answer one question – I have 300 words. In the Horse Country books I have 35,000 words – but that’s still not a lot to develop a world and explore the issues of belonging. You gotta keep it simple

I go into all my stories with great respect for my characters, to be honest and to show their stories with authenticity. I was listening to a podcast with Kate DiCamillo and she was talking about being a former eight year old. With Horse Country, I’m trying to see and honor my former 11-year-old.

You were one of the founders of the Las Musas collective by Latinx women and non-binary writers who write and/or illustrate in traditional children’s literature. The group seems to have a strong dynamic can you give us an update?

I used to know everyone in Las Musas by name, and we could count our members on one hand—and then on two hands. And now there are so many members I have to look up their names on our website! It’s so exciting. And yesterday we welcomed six new Musas to the group. It has evolved into a mentoring program that has always been one goal: a way to lower the ladder to others and help more people tell their stories and share them with readers.

We are planning our third Latinx KidLit Book Festival, most likely for late 2022, and that too seems like a miracle to us. I’m so happy to see how this little seed has grown and how much stronger we all are.

What’s next for you?

I have two other middle grade novels that will be cleared for submission. And I have a picture book bags of love, with HarperCollins coming out in 2024. I’m super excited – Sara Palacios will be illustrating and I’ve always wanted to work with her. It’s about a family coming to terms with the death of their grandmother; It’s mom’s birthday and they want to celebrate by making grandma’s empanadas. It was my way of processing all the grief of the last few years and showing how the people who left us can still be there.

Cannot be tamed (Horseland #1) by Yamile Saied Mendez. Scholastic, $7.99 paper, Apr. ISBN 978-1-338-74946-5

Friends Like These (Horse Country #2) by Yamile Saied Mendez. Scholastic, $7.99 paper, June ISBN 978-1-338-74948-9

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