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Cinco Puntos Press

The Story of Colors / La Historia de los ColoresCon­tro­ver­sy and noto­ri­ety were not the rea­sons that Bob­by Byrd and Lee Mer­rill Byrd began their own pub­lish­ing house, Cin­co Pun­tos Press. They believed in giv­ing voice to ideas, issues, and writ­ers whose voic­es need­ed to be heard.  In 1999, Cin­co Pun­tos pub­lished the book The Sto­ry of Col­ors / La His­to­ria de los col­ores writ­ten by Sub­co­man­dante Mar­cos, the leader of the Zap­atista Army of Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion in Mex­i­co. The Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts at first applaud­ed the pub­li­ca­tion but lat­er with­drew its praise and mon­e­tary grant. The Lan­nan Foun­da­tion pro­vid­ed Cin­co Pun­tos Press with twice the amount of the lost fund­ing and in 2005 rec­og­nized the coura­geous and impor­tant work of Cin­co Pun­tos with the Cul­tur­al Free­dom Fel­low­ship for Excel­lence in Pub­lish­ing. Dur­ing a time of heat­ed con­tro­ver­sy when many issues were added to the mix, pub­lish­er Bob­by Byrd stat­ed:

It was a strange media fren­zy, a true boon to Cin­co Pun­tos. But real ideas and issues got lost in that fren­zy, the most impor­tant of which is the indige­nous strug­gle for auton­o­my and land in Chi­a­pas.”

Cin­co Pun­tos Press con­tin­ues to pub­lish books that have a fresh voice, spo­ken with hon­esty, with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

Thus it is no sur­prise that Cin­co Pun­tos has won sev­er­al awards and their books—fiction and non­fic­tion, adult, YA, juve­nile, and pic­ture books—continue to rise to the top of best book lists as impor­tant books to read. Their awards include The Lan­non Foun­da­tion Cul­tur­al Free­dom Fel­low­ship for excel­lence in pub­lish­ing, the Amer­i­can Book Award from the Before Colum­bus Foun­da­tion, and the South­west Book Award for excel­lence in pub­lish­ing from the Bor­der Region Library Asso­ci­a­tion.

Lee Merrill Byrd, publisher

Lee Mer­rill Byrd, pub­lish­er

I asked Lee Mer­rill Byrd how and why she and her hus­band, Bob­by Byrd, began an award-win­ning press.  Some of her respons­es will sur­prise you.

What is the most reward­ing aspect about being a pub­lish­er?

Friends, authors, illus­tra­tors, col­leagues, work­ing with our son and work­ing with each oth­er, find­ing writ­ing that is full of vital­i­ty, quirk­i­ness, ener­gy, find­ing writ­ers who know how to write, even find­ing writ­ers who don’t yet know how to write. Watch­ing read­ers who love the books we’ve pub­lished. See­ing writ­ers we’ve pub­lished pros­per. It’s all good.

What was the pas­sion that gave you the courage to form Cin­co Pun­tos Press?

This is a great ques­tion: I don’t think we had either pas­sion or courage when we start­ed Cin­co Pun­tos Press in 1985. We were two writers—I’m a fic­tion writer and Bob­by is a poet—with three kids—and we were tired of work­ing for oth­er peo­ple and wish­ing we had more time to write. (Pub­lish­ing is not the answer to hav­ing more time to write, by the way.)

We vis­it­ed Richard Grossinger and his wife, Lindy Hough, who ran North Atlantic Press in Berke­ley. They had pub­lished a book of Bobby’s poems, called Get Some Fus­es for the House. They told us they were mak­ing about $25,000 a year as pub­lish­ers. It was 1985, and that sound­ed real­ly good! So, with­out know­ing any­thing, we decid­ed that we would become pub­lish­ers. For­tu­nate­ly we had a friend down the street, Vic­ki Trego Hill, who knew how to design books and anoth­er friend two blocks over with a short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Dagob­er­to Gilb, (Win­ners on the Pass Line) who lat­er became famous and prob­a­bly for­got all about us. We didn’t have dis­tri­b­u­tion. We prob­a­bly didn’t know what dis­tri­b­u­tion meant. We didn’t have a phone num­ber in the phone book, so when Alan Cheuse reviewed Win­ners on the Pass Line on NPR, no one knew how to find it!

All this is to say that I think the very best thing that we have had going for us is that we didn’t know any­thing at all about pub­lish­ing when we start­ed. And the fact that we live here on the U.S. / Mex­i­co bor­der, far from the so-called cen­ter of pub­lish­ing in NYC. That has allowed us to be unfet­tered by the kind of com­pe­ti­tion that pre­vails in New York and also to have our own par­tic­u­lar vision of what makes a good sto­ry. And, of course, to be deeply inter­est­ed in cul­tures that are not like the ones we grew up in.

As an author, what can I do to give my work the best chance to be pub­lished by your press?

This is a toughie with no guar­an­tees, but I think the best thing a writer can do to get pub­lished by Cin­co Puntos—or by any press—is to write. If you want to be a writer, make writ­ing a dai­ly habit and write from your own heart and write for your own under­stand­ing. Don’t write to get pub­lished, but write to get at what you want to say.

In my sub­mis­sion guide­lines on our web­site, I ask aspir­ing authors to call me on the phone and tell me what they would like us to con­sid­er. I gen­er­al­ly don’t hear peo­ple who are writ­ers. I hear peo­ple who want to get pub­lished more than they want to write. That should not be the dri­ving force.

What recent pub­li­ca­tions are you espe­cial­ly excit­ed about?

I’ll men­tion a few.

Feath­ered Ser­pent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mex­i­co by David Bowles.

Our first-ever Span­ish edi­tion of The Smell of Old Lady Per­fume by Clau­dia Guadalupe Mar­tinez. This book in Eng­lish is a clas­sic, just as good as The House on Man­go Street, in a Span­ish edi­tion.

When a Woman Ris­es, by Chris­tine Eber, the sto­ry of two young women grow­ing up in Chi­a­pas dur­ing the begin­nings of the Zap­atista rev­o­lu­tion, going very dif­fer­ent ways.

Iron Riv­er by Daniel Acos­ta, a YA set in the late 1950s in L.A.

From Nan­cy: One book—a pic­ture book—I will add to your recent list of award-win­ning books is All Around Us, a debut pic­ture book writ­ten by Xele­na Gon­za­lez and illus­trat­ed by Adri­ana Gar­cia. All Around Us was select­ed as an Amer­i­can Indi­an Library Asso­ci­a­tion out­stand­ing pic­ture book hon­or, received nation­al recog­ni­tion with the Pura Bel­pré 2018 Illus­tra­tor Hon­or Book, won the Tomas Rivera Best Pic­ture Book Award, and was named as the best pic­ture book by The Texas Insti­tute of Let­ters.

Thank you, Lee, for being “brave and fool­ish” and con­tin­u­ing to pub­lish books that mat­ter. 

Cin­co Pun­tos Press con­tin­ues to be a small press that takes risks, pub­lish­es new voic­es, cel­e­brates a diver­si­ty of sto­ries, and offers the best in good books, well-writ­ten. If you are not yet famil­iar with their books, I encour­age you to seek them out.


Driver’s Ed

Adobe Stock ImageIt’s amaz­ing that I passed my driver’s test on the first try, since I can see now that I was a pret­ty bad dri­ver. But I was an excel­lent test-tak­er, and the State of Min­neso­ta sent me home with a score of 96 out of 100. Mere weeks lat­er I backed the fam­i­ly van into the mail­box.

It’s not that my par­ents didn’t try their best to improve my dri­ving skills. In fact, they each logged enough hours of behind-the-wheel train­ing with me that I learned to trans­late their two very dif­fer­ent approach­es to cor­rec­tive feed­back.

My mother’s pri­ma­ry feed­back was to ini­ti­ate the fol­low­ing sequence when I made a dri­ving mis­take: 1) make a hor­ri­fied face, 2) suck air in wet­ly over her teeth, 3) clutch the dash­board, and 4) stomp her foot onto an imag­i­nary passenger’s side brake.

My father was more ver­bal, but prone to under­stat­ed com­men­tary such as: “Did you hap­pen to notice that was a red light you drove through?”

It’s hard to find just the right way to give some­body help­ful feed­back. And it’s just as tricky an issue when it comes to giv­ing stu­dents feed­back on their writ­ing.

Praise for what is work­ing well is always a good start­ing point. But then I also try to pro­vide some­thing con­crete that stu­dents can work to improve. Lead­ing ques­tions are a great tool for this: queries such as, “How could you help read­ers bet­ter under­stand the character’s prob­lem?” or “Can you make the read­ers feel more like they’re inside the set­ting of the sto­ry?”

You also want to avoid impos­ing your own voice over the student’s voice. The key is to remain in the role of edi­tor rather than “re-writer.” I point out where changes could improve the writ­ing, but then give stu­dents some room to learn to rewrite for them­selves.

It’s total­ly tempt­ing to stomp on the brake your­self, and just tell them how you would do it. But if you do that too many times, they might nev­er learn how to dri­ve with­out you in the car.


On the Lam

My affec­tion for road trips may have start­ed with my many times on the lam as a kid. I ran the neigh­bor­hood crime syn­di­cate for the under-ten crowd; they played what I want­ed to play. On rainy days, it was often cops and rob­bers (nat­u­ral­ly, we were always the rob­bers) in my mom’s garage-parked, ancient sta­tion wag­on. I was the get­away dri­ver while my accom­plices shot their fin­gers at our pur­suers from the back win­dow.

Kid CopI insti­gat­ed oth­er games, too. Our pirate ship (a.k.a. the liv­ing room couch) sailed through shark-infest­ed waters. The hardy pio­neers who made up our wag­on train scrab­bled for pro­vi­sions as we crossed the vast back­yard prairie. Our spy net­work tracked the move­ments of a dan­ger­ous gang of evil sib­lings. Our games were full of imag­ined crises and dra­ma.

Kids under­stand con­flict;  it’s built into sib­ling rival­ry, into games, into orga­nized sports and tic-tac-toe. But as com­mon as com­bat is in their lives, kids all too often for­get to include it in their sto­ries. And a sto­ry real­ly isn’t a sto­ry with­out con­flict­ing ele­ments.

The good news is, once stu­dents under­stand the neces­si­ty of con­flict, help­ing them pull it into their sto­ries is fair­ly straight­for­ward. Invest some time in a brain­storm­ing break. Give stu­dents exam­ples of com­mon types of con­flict: char­ac­ter vs. char­ac­ter, char­ac­ter vs. soci­ety, char­ac­ters con­flict­ed with­in them­selves. Then ask stu­dents to cre­ate lists of pos­si­ble con­flicts that their own char­ac­ters might face. Empha­size that there are no “stu­pid” ideas at this stage: even the cra­zi­est pos­si­bil­i­ties can lead to fan­tas­tic sto­ry devel­op­ments. Remind stu­dents that the longer their brain­storm­ing list, the more they’ll have to draw upon when they sit down to write.

Encour­age stu­dents to dri­ve their imag­i­na­tions like speed­ing get­away cars. Before you know it, their sto­ries will be packed with the sus­pense and ten­sion that con­flicts pro­vides.


What a Picture’s Worth


Time and UmbrellaWhen I was a kid, a vis­it from my Texas grand­par­ents guar­an­teed hori­zon-expand­ing expe­ri­ences.

For one thing, we were exposed to food choic­es not com­mon to our lit­tle house in Minnesota’s north woods. I’m not talk­ing about chili—my Tex­an father cooked that all the time. I’m talk­ing about Grand­ma drink­ing hot Dr. Pep­per instead of cof­fee. And Grand­pa slather­ing peanut but­ter on his ham­burg­ers.

From the van­tage point of our small town, these out­landish approach­es to famil­iar food­stuffs con­vinced me that the wider world held unimag­ined pos­si­bil­i­ties: appar­ent­ly even peanut but­ter could be made strange and excit­ng, if expe­ri­enced some­where glam­orous like Texas.

Anoth­er ele­ment of my grand­par­ents’ vis­its was Night at the Movies. We’d crowd togeth­er on the couch, the lights would dim, and then we’d have: the slideshows, the director’s cut ver­sions of every road trip my grand­par­ents had recent­ly ven­tured upon. I’d see cap­tured images of exot­ic places like Okla­homa or Mis­souri, and I’d mar­vel at how much world was out there wait­ing for me. Those pho­tos were enough to inspire me to grand imag­in­ings.

Pho­tos are also a per­fect way to trig­ger writ­ing road trips. Cre­ate a col­lec­tion of quirky or out­landish images (like the one of mine at the top of this page, which you are free to use). Sort through your own pho­tos, or take a local road trip with your cam­era in hand, or ven­ture online to track them down. My writer friend Lau­ra Pur­die Salas posts a new writ­ing-prompt pho­to on her blog every Thurs­day morn­ing. Once you’ve col­lect­ed your pho­tos, hand them around your class­room, let­ting stu­dents pull out the one that most intrigues them. Then ask them to write a poem or start a sto­ry based on what­ev­er the image inspires in them. Some­times, you’ll find, a pic­ture is worth a thou­sand words.


Skinny Dip with Karen Blumenthal

Matzo ToffeeFavorite hol­i­day tra­di­tion?

Food! I love to bake and hol­i­days are the best excuse for bak­ing! Peach cob­bler for the Fourth of July, apple cake for the Jew­ish hol­i­days, dozens and dozens of cook­ies for friends and fam­i­ly in Decem­ber, and this killer can­dy that we call mat­zo tof­fee at Passover. I make a ton of it for friends and even send some to spe­cial edi­tors. It’s the most addic­tive thing ever and it proves that choco­late makes every­thing bet­ter.

Were you a teacher’s pet or teacher’s chal­lenge?

Most­ly a teacher’s pet. I had poor eye­sight and super-thick glass­es and had to sit up front. But I also have strong opin­ions, so I’m sure I was a chal­lenge as well.

Mexia TexasWhat’s the first book report you ever wrote?

This is embar­rass­ing, but I don’t remem­ber book reports in ele­men­tary school. I remem­ber reports on a town in Texas (I chose Mex­ia, pro­nounced Me-hay‑a) and oth­er sub­jects, and even a report on Nixon’s trip to Chi­na, but no book reports. Maybe I blocked them out! We did do them in junior high and I got in trou­ble for choos­ing a 1934 nov­el by John O’Hara that the teacher deemed too old for me.

First BookDo you like to gift wrap presents?

That’s kind of a fun­ny ques­tion. Yes, and no. Here’s why: For the last 12 or 13 years, my fam­i­ly has gift-wrapped books at local book­stores dur­ing the Christ­mas sea­son to raise mon­ey for a lit­er­a­cy orga­ni­za­tion called First Book. Some years, we worked many shifts at sev­er­al book­stores and some years, we worked just a hand­ful of shifts. But near­ly all of those years, we gift-wrapped on Christ­mas Eve, which is a crazy day when all the last-minute or vis­it­ing-from-out-of-town shop­pers come in. By the mid­dle of the sea­son, I could hard­ly bear to wrap our family’s own gifts.

All togeth­er, our wrap­ping raised more than $20,000 for First Book. But we decid­ed 2014 would be our last year. Our daugh­ters, who were 12 and 14 when we start­ed, are now grown and live on oppo­site coasts and we don’t get to spend much time with them.  It was a great expe­ri­ence though, and I’m now an excel­lent wrap­per!

What do you wish you could tell your 10-year-old self?

Hmmm. I enjoyed writ­ing at that age, but was becom­ing self-con­scious about it, and I had classmates—including anoth­er Karen—who were more skilled. Prob­a­bly I would tell her that pas­sion and per­sis­tence are about as impor­tant as any­thing and to keep at it.

ph_dinner_300What 3 children’s book authors or illus­tra­tors or edi­tors would you like to invite to din­ner?

One of the real­ly great things about being an author is that you get to meet oth­er authors, and even have a meal with them. So I’ve got­ten to meet some of my heroes, like Rus­sell Freed­man, Steve Sheinkin, and Susan Bar­to­let­ti.

Oh, this is so hard! Bev­er­ly Cleary, for sure, because she was one of my ear­ly favorites and still is.  J.K. Rowl­ing, because that would be amaz­ing. And maybe John Green, because he’s so cool.

Where’s your favorite place to read?

Any­where! Real­ly! I’ll read just about any­where, though I pre­fer a chair. I read a lot at my break­fast table, but also in a com­fort­able chair in our den, on the bike at the gym, on planes, and when I’m wait­ing for an appoint­ment. 


All Different Now

All Different Now

Do you know how some­times your hands hov­er over a book, want­i­ng to open it, sens­ing that this will be an impor­tant book, and you hes­i­tate, want­i­ng to pro­long your inter­ac­tion? I did that, turn­ing All Dif­fer­ent Now this way and that, then exam­in­ing the title page, the jack­et flaps … and final­ly allow­ing myself […]