FOCAL Award Presentation 2023
Article and Portrait by FOCAL Board Member Michele Marot
This year not only marked our return to an in-person event (since the pandemic), but it was also the first time the FOCAL Award Event took place at our own Mark Taper Auditorium at the LAPL
Central Library! For 2023 we honored a most wonderful book, Efrén Divided written by Ernesto Cisneros, who lives in San Diego where he teaches middle school.
FOCAL President Marilyn Robertson opened the event with introductions which included the Award Committee members as well as the Essay Contest Committee members.
Valerie Lynne Shaw, President of the Board of Library Commissioners, thanked FOCAL for their work and briefly talked about the wonderful events happening at the Central Library!
The Award Committee Chair, Basya Samuels, could not attend in person, but she pre-recorded a video message thanking the committee members and discussing the book and the criteria by which it was chosen.
The award, a handmade puppet of the main character by puppet maker Jesse Kingsley (the costume was made by Jesse’s wife, Moira MacDonald) was then presented to Mr. Cisneros. As a bonus, and a delight to the audience, Jesse demonstrated to Mr. Cisneros how the puppet is an actual, functioning puppet! A duplicate puppet is on display at Central’s Children’s Department as part of a permanent collection.
After accepting the Award, Mr. Cisneros gave a brief talk about his writing process. He thinks of books as an opportunity to invite someone into his home - a way to introduce and immerse the reader into his community.
Mr. Cisneros had a passion to write and an editor who wanted to work with him, but after several unsuccessful attempts to publish, his editor suggested he write a practice book, a book where he just wrote to get to know his characters and plot, just for practice. His practice book was Efrén Divided!
Teaching in the public school system for twenty years, Mr. Cisneros knows of many young people’s true life experiences which, of course, inspire his writing. This is how he came up with the idea for Efrén Divided. As a teacher, Mr. Cisneros had placed a “Blue Box” in his classroom where students could write about any concern they had and place it in the box. One of the notes was from a student whose father had recently been deported by ICE. Another student had had her mother taken away to Mexico. He didn’t feel that children’s literature needed another immigrant novel, yet he knew there was a story to tell that he felt compelled to write - and we are so glad that he did!
Mr. Cisneros believes that everybody is a writer - everyone has an interesting story to tell. He encouraged us to ask our parents and grandparents about their stories, while we can, and to write them down. We may learn something about our roots, and it will enhance our familial bonds.
After Mr. Cisneros’ talk, Sandy Schuckett, Chair of the Essay Judging Committee, introduced the essay contest winners: Ted Won, 4th grade, Melrose Elementary; Cruz Cortez, 6th grade, Sutter MS; and Hailey Kim, 7th grade, Burroughs MS. They each read their winning essays and, as our previous events had mostly been luncheons held in (noisy) restaurants, it was refreshing to be able to hear each and every word! One common concern shared by the young students was that the book didn’t have a happy ending. Mr. Cisneros explained that he couldn’t have a happy ending because happy endings don’t happen very often in real life. He hopes there will one day be a happy ending, perhaps in a sequel, but “not yet.”
Board member Dewi Ochoa-Reyes was skilled and genuinely enthusiastic when it came to running the Q & A. One of the answers Mr. Cisneros gave was about being rejected by publishers for so many years. “Taking rejection is not a ‘No’; it’s a ‘Not yet.’ It takes perseverance to get published!”
Mr. Cisneros’ wife, children and parents were all at the event! At one point he spoke about how important his parents were. His mother made sopas for the family (Iike in the book). And when he was growing up, his father told him NOT to mow the lawn. “No son of mine is going to touch a machine - I do that for a living! My son will wear a tie and fulfill his father’s dreams.” At which point we all needed to take a moment and catch our breath.
After the event we celebrated with some delicious refreshments: churros and cookies, tea and fresh juice provided by HomeGirl Catering.
Mr. Cisneros signed copies of Efrén Divided. He used a stamp on the
page where he signed everyone’s book. It had a picture of a person
but, where the feet should be, there were instead roots which made
the person look more like a tree. I had my daughter explain the
inscription to me, “Quisieron enterrarnos, pero no sabian que éramos
semillas” which means, “They wanted to bury us, but they didn't
know we were seeds.”
It was a lovely afternoon for all! Ernesto Cisneros was charming and
personable, and we look forward to reading his upcoming books!