Magical Spirits, Folklore and the Joy of Adventure

An Interview With Middle Grade Author Caris Avendaño Cruz
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Magical Spirits, Folklore and the Joy of Adventure

A Dazzling and Enchanting World Fit for Any Age

As someone who has rediscovered the joy of reading middle grade novels lately, I was excited to find another selection to add to my TBR list – Caris Avendaño Cruz’s novel Marikit and the Ocean of Stars out now. Her book came to me in a 2022 fall books roundup from We Need Diverse Books. I was immediately blown away by its beautiful cover. (Caris revealed that the cover was designed by the Filipino-Canadian illustrator Alexis Young and edited by Filipino editor, Trisha de Guzman. What a delightful trio of talent!)

I know what you’re thinking: why read MG novels when you’re an adult? Well, books like Caris’s are exactly why reading books designed for young children is so wonderful. It’s filled with magic, folklore, and adventure, plus so many other elements that make for a great hero’s journey. And people are talking about it on Goodreads. “One of the best middle grades I’ve read this year,” wrote author Lakita Wilson.

Marikit and the Ocean of Stars is about a ten year old girl who embarks on the greatest adventure of her life, aided by a special dress that her mom made for her. The book was inspired by Filipino folklore, and features a dynamic protagonist. Think: magic, folklore, spirits and gods and adventure. 

If that’s not exciting, then I don’t know what is.

So naturally, I wanted to learn more about its author and how she crafted such an enchanting tale. Caris hails from the Philippines, where she works as a copywriter for some “big internet brands,” she says, all while trying to stay cool in a humid place. I learned that books and stories have always been a big part of her life, but the dream felt unreachable until she discovered other Filipino authors; only then did she realize she could make her own contribution to the publishing world.

Like Marikit, her journey into publishing has been filled with ups and downs. Caris’s book is one that ushers in the power of adventure and discovery, of searching for oneself, a magical coming-of-age story. Marikit’s story is the kind that you can get lost in and before you know it, you’ve realized that you’ve stayed up for hours reading and you can’t stop. Such that it is filled with wonder and excitement. Caris is one of those writers who makes reading middle grade fiction so much fun to read. I can’t wait to see what she has going on next!

Here’s what Caris had to say:

Tell us a bit about your journey to becoming an author. Was this the career you always knew you wanted?

Writing, in a lot of ways, gave me so much comfort. Imagine saying everything you want without actually saying them? Rad! I used to be the kid who sat in a corner scribbling, doodling, making rhymes, and inventing songs. I hand wrote my first novels in large notebooks, then passed them to my friends during class (they had illustrations, too, and they weren’t that good). As someone who has read Little Women way too much that the pages have dismantled on their own, I also dreamed of my “Jo Moment.” But as I grew up, this dream felt impossible. There were few opportunities to get published in the Philippines. And I was not brave enough to self-pub. I tucked this dream into the back of my head and chose other lucrative paths with writing. Yet the stories so alive in my head demanded to be written—so I did—and when I discovered Filipino authors breaking into international trade publications, I knew that I had to give myself a chance to try. 

With much waiting and unexpected miracles, a bunch of lovely people stretched out their hands to me. I got here through the support of a very loving family, and a brilliant community of writers whose goal was, “Fill the shelves (with more Filipino stories)!” If one will check the hashtag #FilTheShelves across social media, they’d find books written by Filipino authors. I’m so grateful for the opportunity, but there are still a lot of us, writers of colors, all with stories waiting to be told. I pray more doors keep opening so that more of our stories— culture, myths, hopes and dreams—can reach more kids. 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given, with regards to careers and success?

Create in the waiting. My parents would tell me that what’s meant for us will find us, and while those opportunities are not yet present, we should use our in-betweens to build ourselves up, find new passions, or nourish what’s already there. The waiting isn’t a pause or a dead-end. We could keep creating, keep learning, and keep putting ourselves out there. It’s magical when the things we do during the wait turn out to be the ones that will take us where we want to be. 

What books are on your reading list right now?

M.T. Khan’s Nura and The Immortal Palace, Candy Gourlay’s Bone Talk, and Tanya Guerrero’s Adrift!

When you’re writing – where do you write? What is the setting?

I love small, familiar spaces: a corner in my room, a spot at the dining table, a seat behind a particular door, or on my favorite side of the sofa. I want to be near the windows to see the sky, the trees, and the cats climbing on the branches. I love the sound of the birds chirping, the distant rolling of the tricycles, and the gentle laughter of children on their way to school. Big, busy places take my attention away from my work. Whenever I’m outside, I’d rather look at faces or pets or interesting scenes and note them down for future reference. 

How have you been staying connected to your friends/family/community during COVID-19?

My parents, brother, and I were all bundled up at home during the height of the pandemic, making ice cream and fruit-filled empanadas, cooking dumplings, adopting new stray cats (which have grown into a big family), and going to the market by turns. We video call our relatives every week, and since some of our aunts and uncles live so close, we checked in on one another by biking around or stopping by the gate without coming inside the house.

Do you have exciting projects coming up? If so, please tell us.

I have another book coming from FSG BYR, and with the same spirit of Marikit, it bears hints of our local folklore and a young Filipino lead! 

What is your dream brunch date? Where and with whom?

My grandmother—we call her Inang—is one of my favorite people in the world. She passed away back in 2010, but if the universe could jumble itself and flip back time, I’d love to sit at the round table of her old kitchen and eat sopas with her. I’d tell Inang I wrote a book about her sewing machine, the creaking wooden floors of her room, and the clothes she made for us. It’ll be nice to hear her laugh again

What is your ideal comfort food?

I have an insatiable sweet tooth, and whenever I feel down, I automatically look for something warm and fudgy, like brownies or a big slice of cake. I love ensaymada— traditional Filipino bread smothered with butter, sugar, grated cheese, and salted egg. Champorado is a fantastic comfort food, too. It’s sticky rice porridge dropped with chocolate tablea, best eaten on cold mornings and rainy afternoons.

Which authors inspire your work the most?

I adore books with lots of humor and heart! I read E. Nesbit, Kate DiCamillo, and Madeleine L’Engle—I just loved the way their books are whimsical and timeless. I am inspired by Erin Entrada Kelly and her range of work, and I’ll always pick up middle grade books by Kelly Barnhill and Catherynne M. Valente.

Want to learn more about Caris? Check out her website, grab a copy of her book, and let us know what you think!

Hoang Samuelson
Hoang Samuelson is a writer, editor, and lover of British dramas, including Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey and The Great British Baking Show. When she’s not reading or baking or watching one of the shows above, she enjoys outdoor activities including running and hiking. She also works as an accountant by day. Currently, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and to children, ages five and eight.
Favorite book: Too many to count, but a recent one is The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Favorite brunch item: chicken and waffles! with a side of coffee

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