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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Texas

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 […]