Monday, September 18, 2023

Interview with Elisa Stone Leahy, Author of Tethered to Other Stars

Tethered to Other Stars

It was such a privilege to read this wonderful book and I think you will find Elisa's answers inspiring and revelatory.

About the Book:

Perfect for fans of Efrén Divided and A Good Kind of Trouble, this luminous middle grade debut follows a tween girl navigating the devastating impact of ICE’s looming presence on her family and community.

Seventh grader Wendy Toledo knows that black holes and immigration police have one thing in common: they can both make things disappear without a trace. When her family moves to a new all-American neighborhood, Wendy knows the plan: keep her head down, build a telescope that will win the science fair, and stay on her family’s safe orbit.

But that’s easier said than done when there’s a woman hiding out from ICE agents in the church across the alley—and making Wendy’s parents very nervous.

As bullying at school threatens Wendy’s friendships and her hopes for the science fair, and her family’s secrets start to unravel, Wendy finds herself caught in the middle of far too many gravitational pulls. When someone she loves is detained by ICE, Wendy must find the courage to set her own orbit—and maybe shift the paths of everyone around her.

First of all: What an amazing book!  I loved it and all the characters so much! And I learned so much!  So many questions:


The Interview

  1. Can you share what made you write about the refugee crisis in the United States (which, really, is happening all around the world?)

As a Peruvian-American living in the Midwest, I’ve gotten to know many refugees and been involved in immigration activism. I am also a documentary filmmaker but I found that the most vulnerable people cannot share their stories on screen. I cannot put people on camera to share what they’ve been through when the perpetrators are still out there, searching for them. I have friends who ran from gangs in El Salvador, who left abusive relationships in Mexico, or who have been mistreated by ICE agents here in the US. Those stories are not safe for my friends to share in a documentary film, but I can write it into fiction. Children’s literature has an immense capacity to take distant experiences and draw them closer. Many in this country, adults and kids alike, have a very distant concept of what the immigrant experience is like. I hope that by telling some of these stories through fiction for middle grade, readers may draw a bit closer to comprehending that reality.

  1. The main character Wendy (nice name choice by the way!) is a budding scientist whose family has just moved again after raids in their previous community. She and her brother suspect that one of their parents might not have the proper documentation to allow them to stay in the country, but in many ways, are too afraid to ask. There’s a tremendous amount of love and tension in the family – how difficult was that to write?

Tension is always difficult to write, but particularly in middle grade. Middle schoolers are often navigating that transition between the safety of their home and their place in the unknown world outside those walls. As kids expand their understanding of the world beyond the scope of their own family, their values and beliefs begin to take on a new shape. Writing to that age where identity is still forming means questioning family members but not completely throwing off that safety net. Wendy has to see her parents as fallible, yet still trust them. She has to question their choices, but know that they love her wholeheartedly. I gave some of that questioning to her older brother, who is developmentally further along in creating his own identity. But Wendy, like other kids her age, has to find her own path.

  1. One of the difficulties of trying to blend in is that it makes it almost impossible to make waves when you see things that aren’t right. Wendy has some friends at school who are much more forthright when they see racist and other bad behaviours. You did a wonderful job of showcasing the subtle and not-so-subtle ways bigotry manifests itself. How important was it to show kids how insidious that kind of behaviour can be.

When we only hear about the most egregious examples of discrimination, it is easy to think we would speak out. Standing up to racism seems obvious. But most bigotry is subtle and responding to that can be hard. I wanted kids to see examples that are complicated and show how even things that seem small can be damaging. Most kids have a strong sense of justice but taking a stand is not easy. For people who are being targeted, standing up can even make things worse. It was important to me to point out that vulnerable people may have valid reasons to not be at the forefront of the fight, and to show how others can be advocates for justice.

  1. I love the parallel story of Luz, who has sought sanctuary in a local church so she can’t be deported. I find the idea of sanctuary so moving, since really, isn’t that what we all search for in life? This plotline was a wonderful way to politicize Wendy’s brother, Tom. How much research did you have to do around similar cases?

Much of my research came through lived experience in immigration activism. My friend Edith Espinal lived in sanctuary for over 3 years in a church to avoid a deportation order. She took her fight to the news, to the presidential candidates and to the front page of the New York Times. I was part of her team when we traveled to DC to lobby for her and others in sanctuary. We led letter-writing campaigns and petition signings. Edith became the face of the sanctuary movement. My partner and I produced a documentary, A Shelter for Edith, about her story and my book is dedicated to her. But even with all my experience, I did plenty of research. Immigration law is messy and no refugee experience is the same. My book is set in Columbus, Ohio in 2018, during the year that Edith was living in sanctuary. Sanctuary is a concept that I have never seen in contemporary fiction, so it was critically important that I present an authentic experience that fit that time and place.

  1. Wendy standing up for herself actually helps her parents realize the cost of staying hidden. But there are consequences to speaking up. Did you know from the beginning how the book was going to end or did some things change in the writing?

When I began writing this book, my friend Edith was still living in sanctuary. I wrote all the hope I had for her into Luz’s story. I wrote my passion for justice into Etta’s headstrong, big-hearted zeal. I wrote the grief I felt for another friend whose husband was taken by ICE into the hurt Tom’s family felt. I knew from the beginning that I wanted Wendy and her family to be okay and together at the end. But I also knew that there is no easy resolution to the complexities of immigration law. The book opens with Wendy’s family moving into a house that feels unstable and unsafe, mimicking the societal structures that often feel threatening to refugees. The book ends with Wendy’s family together, healing and in a home that is now safe and welcoming. But you’ll notice that the legal questions are not fully resolved and Luz is still living in sanctuary. There is hope, and a path forward, but nothing is certain. True change can only happen with policy change and democratic action. My friend Edith is now living in her own home, thanks to a democratic vote that changed the administration. In the book, Luz’s story is open-ended as a reminder that our actions decide the future.

  1. Secrets are wreaking havoc in Wendy’s family. Wendy’s parents come from places where the only way to survive is to risk the long and dangerous journey to another country, one where they know they may not be welcomed. Was it hard to write how that trauma impacted them and then ultimately their children?

I have dual citizenship, so I have never had to grapple with the realities of immigration for myself. But this book is shaped by the experiences of many, many friends. Telling this story is nothing compared to what they have lived through. I have listened to an ICE officer mock and belittle my friend for misunderstanding the English instructions he was given at his check-in. I have called a friend from the ICE office to tell her that her husband was just taken into custody by an ICE officer who referred to distraught immigrants being deported as “crybabies.” I’ve had parents ask me to help them find paperwork to sign custody of their 5-year-old over to relatives in the event that both of them were deported. And I’ve sat for hours with friends, documenting the darkest moments of their lives for their refugee claims, both of us in tears. Was this hard to write? Yes. But weaving their pieces of truth into this work of fiction was the best way I knew to tell their stories. 

  1. I so hope every school and library gets a copy of this book, because the refugee situation is only going to get worse as the climate crisis intensifies. What do you hope your readers take away from this story?

ICE has done a remarkable job of creating a culture of fear that terrifies families. For kids growing up with that reality, there is often no room to acknowledge that fear and its damaging effects. I wanted to give those kids a place to see themselves and I wanted other kids to get a sense of that suffocating fear. As a child, I vividly remember reading books about WWII and what it was like for the Jewish people living in that environment. Those stories made me a more empathetic person and shaped my view of justice and systems of power. Our kids need to hear these stories.

  1. Finally – What’s next?

If you loved Wendy and her friends, then I have some great news! The second book, which follows one of Wendy’s new friends from school, comes out next Fall. The title reveal and description are coming soon! It takes place just a few weeks after Tethered to Other Stars. I can’t give too much away, but there will be comics, secrets, a drag queen storytime, a sweet crush and library shenanigans. Also a glitter cat. Stay tuned for more! And if you’d like to take a personality quiz to see which of my characters you are most like, check out my website!

Want to know more about Elisa? Click here!

Also, between now and October 2nd, you can enter a goodreads contest to win your own copy! Click here!