Author brings tales of Puerto Rico to audience of eager young readers
By Kerigan Butt
Marisa de Jesus Paolicelli in the Avon Grove Library's children's section, with a copy of her latest book, 'Lightkeepers to the Rescue!'
By John Chambless
Long before she dreamed of being a published author, Marisa de Jesus Paolicelli loved to read.
"I grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., and we didn't have money to buy books," she said during an interview last month at the Avon Grove Library in West Grove. "When the Bookmobile would come around our neighborhood, I was so excited. I would hop on there and get some books. My favorite was 'The Velveteen Rabbit.' My sister loves sports, but I was the reader in my family. I remember reading a lot of the Nancy Drew mysteries, and the Hardy Boys.
"I just want to help children achieve their dreams," she said, "and you can do that by reading and learning. You can better yourself in life. It pleases me to know that kids love a book they can learn from."
It was a long time between her early love of reading and the appearance of Paolicelli's first children's book, "There's a Coqui In My Shoe!" The odds were against her from the beginning, and she has a long, laminated roll of rejection letters from publishers to prove it.
When she was a girl in Bethlehem, Paolicelli's parents would tell her about their native Puerto Rico. Her parents came to America in the early 1950s and worked hard to raise a family. At 13, Marisa got to visit Puerto Rico for the first time.
"I stayed at my uncle's house," Paolicelli said. "He was a dairy farmer, with a lot of cows and chickens. It was very rural, compared to where I grew up in Bethlehem. I had to get used to the roosters crowing early in the morning. I was there for two months."
Marisa's parents would point out celebrities on TV -- Rita Moreno, Jose Feliciano, Chi Chi Rodriguez -- and tell her, "These are really great humanitarians, and people in our culture who are positive role models," she recalled. "My parents told me to look to them."
Paolicelli attended Northampton Area College, met her husband Vincent, lived in Arizona for a while and eventually settled in Avondale seven years ago. Inspired by the animals and plants of Puerto Rico, in 2003 she wrote "There's a Coqui In My Shoe!", about a boy who finds a tiny frog in his shoe and sets off on a series of adventures across the island. She had never written a book before. She worked with illustrator Tanja Bauerle, who she met while living in Arizona, and began shopping the book to publishers in 2004.
"Out of 80 to 100 query letters I sent out, I got a response from three," she said. "I take the scroll of all the letters to schools when I do presentations, and I have kids hold it up. It stretches out the door and down the hall. My message to them is to to never give up."
At the time she wrote "Coqui," there were very few children's books focusing on Latino culture, and even fewer that explored Puerto Rico. The three publishers who expressed interest, however, wanted to edit the book's illustrations and leave out the 17 species of coqui frogs that Paolicelli had included. "I just couldn't part with those 17 frogs," she said.
The three years of exhaustive research she did on native plants and animals of Puerto Rico is reflected in the book, which depicts everything as naturalistically as possible. To make it easier for Carlito to have adventures, however, he has been enlarged from his real size, which is about the width of a dime.
Remembering how her parents had told her about Latino heroes of her youth, Paolicelli sent query letters to them, tracking down their addresses through the internet. Getting a book deal is not supposed to work this way, and Paolicelli laughed when she credited "a lot of prayer" for her out-of-the-blue success. "I'm thanking the Lord very much for all the doors that have opened," she said.
One day, she got a phone call from Iwalani Rodriguez, the wife of Chi Chi Rodriguez. "She told me, 'We love your story and we'd like to be involved in the project,'" Paolicelli said. She flew to meet Rodriguez in Puerto Rico, and "on a handshake deal," he agreed to start his own publishing company to bring "Coqui" to print.
"I was nobody, he didn't know who I was, and he was happy to meet with me," Paolicelli said. "I went to the bathroom to cry, because I thought about my father and all those memories came back." Her parents did not live to see the book's publication.
In 2007, "Coqui" appeared in print. It has since won the first-place International Latino Book Award for Best Educational Children's Book in English and second place for Best Children's Picture Book in English. It's now in its fourth printing and is still selling well, although Paolicelli is the sole driving force behind generating publicity. "I wear a lot of hats," she said, smiling.
Through her website, Paolicelli posts updates and announces appearances at schools and bookstores. Chi Chi Rodriguez also promotes "Coqui" during interviews, and has given a copy of it to the White House, Paolicelli said with a smile.
By the time the book was printed, Paolicelli had written "Lightkeepers to the Rescue!", which continues Carlito the Coqui's adventures. This time, he visits all of Puerto Rico's historic lighthouses. Printed in 2012, the large-format book, illustrated by Susan Daly, is ready to go into its second printing. It has also won critical acclaim and awards, including a first place at the International Latino Book Awards, and honorable mentions at the New York Book Festival and Hollywood Book Festival.
Both books have been published only in English so far, Paolicelli said. She would love to see them translated into Spanish, but doing so is like publishing a whole new book, with new text design, and the project is on a back burner for now.
Paolicelli is in the planning stages for publishing her third book, "A Jibarito's Miracle," which is set in the 1900s and centers on the jibaro peasants of Puerto Rico. The chapter book is set in Arecibo, the town where her parents grew up, and is aimed at slightly older readers than her first two picture books. Paolicelli is again working with graphic designer Amy Stewart, of Ami Designs in West Grove, on the look of the new book. It should be published in a year.
Through her personal appearances and from reading feedback on her website, Paolicelli said she has learned that "kids just love the frogs. I play a recording of the sound of the frogs when I do appearances. What I've been getting from the children is that they love that it's educational and entertaining. One of the kids said, 'Marisa, I love your book because it's reading, but it's fun.'"
"Lightkeepers" also won the Latino Books Into Movies Award, opening the door for a possible animated version of the story, Paolicelli said. "They're taking the book to key producers and directors for possible animation," she said. "I met last week with an animator who right now is working with South Park Studios. I'm getting a three-page script together for him, a storyboard. From there, we present it to key producers."
Having worked as a paralegal secretary in a West Chester attorney's office, Paolicelli said she is now solely a full-time author and promoter of her own work. "I put a lot of love into it," she said of the non-stop work, which pays off in unexpected ways.
"The first book signing for 'Coqui' was held at El Yunque, a rainforest in Puerto Rico," she said. "Tanja, the illustrator, and I were there. The next day, she sent me an e-mail stating that, as she waited in line at the airport to return home, a little boy was also waiting in line. He came up to her and tugged on her shirt and said, 'I remember you! You're the illustrator. My mommy bought your book and I love it so much I fell asleep with it! I slept with 'There's a Coqui in My Shoe!''
"This is what it's all about for me," Paolicelli said. "Putting a smile on children's faces."
For more information, visit www.marisadejesus.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail email@example.com.