When Christina Gonzalez held the launch party for her first book The Red Umbrella, almost 400 people crowded into Books and Books to hear her speak. The crowd included many men and women who had been a part of Operation Pedro Pan, when Cuban parents took a leap of faith and sent their unaccompanied children to the United States to keep them out of communist hands. Both of Gonzalez’s parents came to the U.S., which was how she got the idea for the novel.
“It was always a part of my family’s history,” she says. “It wasn’t until I heard (Country Walk author) Ruth Vander Zee talking about Erika’s Story that I realized there was a story to be told in my family’s history.” Gonzalez heard Vander Zee speak at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in January 2006. She began to write the story as the conference continued. Initially, it was a picture book. “When I wrote it as a short story and sent it out, it was pretty much a universal response that it was a wonderful story, but it was not a short story; it was a novel,” she says. “It was 2008 that I was ready to transfer it into a full novel.”
Her family loved the idea of the book. “It was a book honoring what they had gone through,” she says. “They were incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about the whole thing and they wanted to talk more about the experience.”
That summer of 2008 was not exactly the best time to be writing since Gonzalez was in the midst of building a new home. The family moved twice into temporary quarters and then into the new house. She credits her critique groups with helping keep her on track. “I wrote it in eight weeks,” she says. “That was because there was already interest in it.” At another SCBWI conference at the beginning of that summer, she had the first 10 pages reviewed and it caught the interest of both an editor and an agent, who pushed her to finish quickly.
“It’s a part of American history that hasn’t been dealt with, especially in a young adult novel,” she says. “About 13,300 to 14,000 kids were coming to the U.S. by themselves. Most kids aren’t aware of that, even Cubans. People are fascinated by it.”
Writing the book gave her a new appreciation for what her parents and grandparents had to endure during that period. “The fear that the parents had to be living through about sending them away,” she says. “It gives me a deeper understanding.”
The book has been chosen an Indy Bookstore Top Ten for the summer, which has guaranteed the success of the novel, sent it into a second printing and possibly a third.
Locally, Gonzalez has another signing scheduled for June 16 at the Books and Books in Bal Harbor. She says the positive attention for her debut novel, which includes glowing reviews, has been gratifying. “It’s more than I expected,” she says. “It’s more than what I had hoped for.”