So this is the opening section or “chapter” of my latest story, “Munecas.” I can’t decide on the format, but know it must be illustrated…I don’t mind the chapter book format, but prefer picture books for older readers. Shadra pointed out that other books have been successful with that format–like Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford or Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan–mature content accompanied by gorgeous images. We’re hoping to collaborate on this project, but so far nothing’s happening b/c I can’t find an agent and am sick of sending things “blind” to editors I don’t know. But for now I’m just trying to focus on finishing it up. Senor Pepe’s story takes us to the Caribbean/Central America–maybe Belize? Really, I was inspired by Cozbi A. Cabrera and her gorgeous dolls, and she’s from Honduras. This is my second story with an Afro-Latino character–I need to brush up on my Spanish!
Max stood in front of the pastry shop. Behind the glass were rows of sugary tarts, luscious cupcakes, fruit pies, three-layer cakes, and ladyfingers dipped in chocolate. Max pressed his lips together and let his eyes roam past the delicious desserts. He wasn’t hungry at all. What Max really wanted was to go next door…
Beside the pastry shop on President Street was a very special boutique. Inside were fancy, frothy dresses that looked like cotton candy, and beautiful hand-made dolls. Every day, on their way home from school, girls clustered around the boutique’s window, admiring the ever-changing display. Max wanted to press his face against the glass and admire the dresses, too. But boys didn’t like lace, and satin, and tulle—did they?
Max knew he would be teased if he ever admitted that he liked looking at dolls. He didn’t want to play with them, really…he just wanted to know how they were made. Each doll in the boutique’s window had a perfectly painted face. Some had skin the color of coffee; others had skin the color of cream. Each doll had a unique dress trimmed with pearls or glass beads or intricate lace. Some of the dolls had coils of yarn piled atop their head. Others wore carefully embroidered caps that flipped up to reveal pierced ears! “How do you make jewelry for dolls?” Max wondered. He wished there was a way to find out.
Max had never been inside the beautiful boutique. Once in a while he would stand behind the tight knot of tittering girls, shifting from foot to foot. “Hey, Ava,” Max would say real casual-like. “What homework do we have for Math?”
Ava would groan and roll her eyes, but she always turned around, unzipped her bag, and took out her notebook. “The homework was written on the board, Max,” Ava would say with more than a hint of aggravation. Max would just grin, and pretend to copy Ava’s notes while taking a closer look at the boutique window. Sometimes the other girls noticed that Max was looking at the dresses and dolls. One or two times they laughed at him, and Max’s face flushed with shame. Other times the girls didn’t really seem to mind. They even told him which dresses they planned to wear when it was time for their confirmation.
One day while Max was standing with the girls admiring the new display, a bell tinkled softly and the door to the boutique opened wide! “Bienvenido!” said an elderly gentleman with warm brown eyes. “Welcome, everyone—come in!” The girls rushed inside, each one pausing to say, “Buenos dias, Senor Pepe!” The old man smiled at the girls and then looked at Max. “Are you coming, mi hijo?”
Max pressed his lips together and quickly glanced up and down the block. What if someone saw him going into the doll shop? From within, Max could hear the excited ooohs and aaahs of the girls as they discovered new and wonderful things. Max swallowed hard, nodded once, and slipped inside the boutique.
What a sight met his eyes! Carousel ponies pranced across the wall…glittering crystals dangled from the chandelier…and everywhere—everywhere!—DOLLS…
Max felt like he was dreaming! While the girls gushed over the gorgeous gowns, Max went from doll to doll, marveling at their beautiful bracelets, elegant earrings, and pretty pearl necklaces. Senor Pepe sat on a stool behind the counter and watched Max over his slender spectacles. “Do you like dolls, mi hijo?” he asked finally.
Max felt his face grow hot. He nodded shyly and put his hands in his pockets though he yearned to touch the soft chenille hair cascading down one doll’s back.
“You know,” said Senor Pepe, “I once knew many boys who loved to work with dolls.”
Max looked up, amazed. “Really?”
Senor Pepe nodded, but kept his eyes on the new dress he was making. Max drew closer and watched as the silver needle dipped in and out of the shimmering fabric. “When I was a boy,” Senor Pepe began, “there was no shame in making something beautiful with your hands. Sewing is a skill, just like hitting a baseball or fixing a car.”
Max had never thought of it that way. “How did you learn to sew?” he asked.
“Do you really want to know? It is a very long story,” warned Senor Pepe.
Max set his heavy book bag down on the floor. “I don’t mind,” he replied.
Senor Pepe smiled but his eyes looked somewhat sad. “I learned from the best when I was a small boy. But that was long ago and far away.”
Ava came over to the counter. “We’re going now, Max,” she said. Max shifted from foot to foot. He glanced at Senor Pepe, but the old man was busy sewing. “I—I think I’m going to stay,” Max said timidly.
Senor Pepe stood and reached for a painted tin full of biscuits. He offered them to the girls as they filed out of the store, then Senor Pepe returned to his stool behind the counter. “Pull up a chair and have a cookie,” he told Max. Then Senor Pepe’s story began…