Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What Can't Wait by Ashley Hope Pérez

We often hear about how low-income kids fail at school, especially in minority communities. In What Can(t) Wait Ashley Hope Pérez describes the challenges from a gifted student’s perspective. Despite the gritty material, this moving debut novel still manages to be filled with hope, which is in fact the author's middle name.

Encouraged by her calculus teacher, Marisa dreams of going to college in Austin, Texas to become an engineer. Her barely educated parents, who left Mexico for Houston, have a different dream. They expect Marisa to cook, to look after her niece and to help support the family by working a minimum wage job. School comes a distant second to family. Marisa’s boyfriend is supportive, but his expectations weigh on her too. She struggles to please everyone at once but cracks under the pressure. Just when Marisa wants to give up, she finds encouragement from her niece, who is still young enough to think anything is possible.

What Can(t) Wait reads like a suspense story with high stakes even though what Marisa wants is what more privileged teens take for granted. Despite all the hardships, Marisa never whines and the book is not preachy. I would strongly recommend this well crafted novel to older teens and to adults. It's a must read for teachers. Sexually graphic material, including a near rape, makes it upper young adult fiction. What Can(t) Wait is not an easy read, but it’s well worth reading. I can’t stop thinking about it. Marisa and her issues feel so real.

My Interview of Ashley Hope Pérez

Sarah: You served in Teach for America Corps in a neighborhood similar to the one depicted in your novel. What did you teach? How did that experience inform your writing?

Ashley: I taught high school English in Houston. I’ve said this many times, but there would be no novel without my students. Many were reluctant to read or write when they first came to my class, so winning them over was a big challenge. Once I sold them on the power of reading and writing for success in life and for pleasure, though, they were unstoppable.

Read more about my students in this Diversity in YA guest post

How did that experience as a teacher compare with your high school years as teenager?

Believe it or not, I actually dropped out of high school after my sophomore year. Of course, I dropped out to go to college, but my dropout story here. The fact remains that I didn’t feel like I fit in at all. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t! I had friends who were very kind (and somewhat protective of me), but I always felt like we were speaking different languages. In retrospect, I see that I probably seemed relatively well adjusted from the outside. I still felt lonely and out of place on the inside, though. Most people don’t realize that I’m shy, but I am.  (Photo at right of Ashley at the same age as Marisa.)

What changes in our educational system would you make to help students like Marisa?

Set high expectations for student achievement and catch gaps early. The majority of my high school seniors were reading well below grade level, many of them on a fifth- to sixth-grade level. How did this happen? There are many factors, but (since I’ve also taught at the elementary level), I know first hand that students who start behind—particularly when they come from disadvantaged backgrounds—usually stay behind. It’s easy to make excuses for students based on their circumstances, but this is no favor to them. What they need are teachers and programs that are up to the challenge of helping them fill in gaps that will only widen with time.

Ashley Hope Pérez with her son.

How do you balance the competing demands of academic and creative writing with family life?

I’m just now taking my qualifying exams for my PhD in Comparative Literature, which is the last step before the dissertation.  I read and work with literatures in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English. For my exams, I have focused on the novel in all of these language traditions, but I have an especially strong interest in twentieth-century literature in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the U.S. (especially Latino/a lit). You can read about the books I teach in a course on Caribbean women writers in this post for Color Online.

I find that I tend to work best by focusing on academic work for a while (with a chunk of writing every day still for my creative work.) For example, during the past months, I have set a very small goal of 15 minutes daily for my creative writing. But by the time this interview goes up, I’ll have finished my exams, and I’ll be working full-time on the revision of my second novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, with a short block of time reserved every day for free-writing toward my dissertation idea.

As for family: my son and husband are so cool (and they are best buds) that I’m always happy to be with them! We work really hard to have playtime together every day no matter how busy we are.

How does the writing experience differ in your 2 fields?

While I find that the kind of writing I do is very different writing for teens versus writing for my colleagues, my process is pretty similar in both cases. I do a lot of zero drafting. A zero draft is “throw-away” writing in notebooks, on notecards, and on sticky notes. All of this is before I officially “begin”—I’m just trying to find my way in to the topic, to find the interesting material or the “story” (the best scholarly writing, in my opinion, also tells a story—a story of interpretation).

What is the best writing advice you received?

Oh, I’ve gotten so much good advice! But I suppose the two most important bits are:

(1) Write with whatever time you have; don’t let yourself say that it’s not enough to get something done. If you are focused, you can get a lot done even in 10 or 15 minutes.

(2) Write the book (or story or poem or essay) that YOU can write. The more I write, the more I realize what an amazing accomplishment it is to finish (much less publish) anything.

Ashley Hope Pérez with former student Rey Mejía (he's also in the student photo above.)

Congratulations on your 2-book debut deal with Carolrhoda Books. Can you give us a sneak preview of your next novel?

Sure! The Knife and the Butterfly was inspired in part by an actual event in Houston. I used a series of articles from the Houston Chronicle while teaching a freshman English summer school class, and the students got so into the story that I decided I had to use it. The novel follows two teenagers through the aftermath of a deadly gang fight. Lexi is from a working class background and hangs around a gang for protection and for a sense of herself. Azael is a romantic drifter essentially orphaned by his mom’s death and his father’s deportation to El Salvador. Their lives get mixed up in a way that neither one of them wanted but that neither one can escape, either.

Thanks, Ashley, for joining us! Your next book sounds very intriguing too. 

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought this book after reading a terrific review on Reading in Color. All photos were supplied by the author and reproduced with her permission. The (t) in the title is not a typo. Think mathematical function and literary perentheses.

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@Barrie Summy


Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Sarah

I was very touch by the book review and interview. Thank you for sharing and I will be reading this book.

The second novel seems to be a good read--my husband is from El Salvador!

Have a good day!

Tracy :)

tina said...

I like the advice of write whatever you can in whatever time you have. That's very positive.

Keri Mikulski said...

Wow. What an amazing story - both the author's and the book. Love your posts. I added WHAT CAN'T WAIT to my TBR. Happy Wednesday!

Ellen Booraem said...

Fascinating review and interview, as always, Sarah. The book sounds like a must-read for any of us even remotely connected to a school (or kids!). Aspirations and their barriers are so individual and so hard to overcome. I like that you described this as "a suspense story"--very apt.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Excellent review, Sarah! You've always got so much 'meat' to your reviews. :)

There are plenty of stories about underprivleged kids who persevered and turned their lives around, but this one sounds uniquely different.

On another note, I myself was a Houston high-schooler who went on to UT Austin to graduate as an engineer...but my story isn't quite the same. :)

A Cuban In London said...

It's always surprising to me that there aren't more teachers-turned-authors nowadays. I mean, their material is right there, under their noses, so to speak.

And I like 'difficult' novels nowadays. :-) I think sometimes writers pander too much to the middle market hoping to make a quick buck. Good to know that there are still authors for whom their integrity comes first. :-)

Many thanks for your review and interview. I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Greetings from London.

Ashley Hope Pérez said...

Thanks for the comments, folks! And a big thank you to Sarah for such a thoughtful review and interview. It's always a pleasure to connect to readers!

Tracy, one of the things I'm working on for my second novel is getting the Salvadoran Spanish right--I speak Mexican/Mexican-American style Spanish, but I realized as I was researching for the novel that there are important differences. It's good for me to imagine your husband as a reader who would care about these fine distinctions.

Alyssa, you are right that there are a number of "making it" stories about immigrant teens out there, but my students often complained that they made it seem too easy and didn't show how often family expected compromises that put education on the back burner. I tried to write the novel they wanted to read but couldn't find, the one that didn't sugar coat or offer false triumphalism.

Ashley Hope Pérez said...

Oh, and to ACinLondon: I think a lot of teachers feel they haven't got the time. My students challenged me to write the novel as a way of setting a "big goal" comparable to the tough stuff I asked of them. So I got lucky to have some serious accountability. And I learned what I could do in 30-45 minutes a day.

Cat said...

I appreciate your review Sarah. Anytime I can walk away from a book and then find that it constantly comes to mind is the sign of a good read. I'm going to go check Amazon right now to see if I can find it for my Kindle.

kayerj said...

what a nice interview, the book does sound like a tough read, but an important subject. thanks for stopping by today.

Amanda Summer said...

what an incredible young woman - i simply loved hearing her advice about writing - even 15 minutes a day. if she can do it, as well as work on her dissertation and take care of a baby and teach, that gives hope to the rest of us who are trying to write a book.

thanks, sarah, for yet another insightful and inspiring interview.

Barrie said...

Interesting review and interview. I love how the author's students were an integral part of the writing of this novel. I added What Can't Wait to my TBR list. Thank you for joining in, Sarah! And thank you for the interview, Ashley!

troutbirder said...

Very thoughtful and interesting Sarah. It connects with me on many levels. Particularly because my son taught in a summer science enrichment scholorship program in Colorado for high school sophmores and juniors with these qualifications. Your parents could not have attended college and teacher recommendations. The majority of students were girls and Hispanic.....

☆sapphire said...


Sounds like a great read. The conflict between Marisa and her parents about which path to choose
must be a universal theme. Interestingly, what is often seen in our country is that parents have high hopes for their children while children do not have any desire to improve themselves...

PS 3 books of the Pern series
have been delivered!! Thanks for your recommendation!!

Stacy said...

Sounds like an amazing book.

And great interview, Sarah and Ashley!

Kelly H-Y said...

Great review/interview ... she sounds amazing!!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, thanks for your comments! It’s terrific to see so much interest for this good book. I haven’t been online much this week.

Alyssa, what a coincidence!

Ashley, thanks for responding to comments while I’ve been offline. It was interesting to hear about your careful research on language for your next novel.

Sapphire, I’d love to hear what you make of the Pern books. I read them as a teenager. The White Dragon and Moreta were my two favorites.

Bee said...

Everything about this book and this author interested me. Teachers who don't accept limits or limitations are absolutely heroic. Perez's advice about taking advantage of that 15 minutes is invaluable. I'm really guilty of not writing unless I can clear away a big chunk of quiet, uninterrupted time. Even so, I'm in awe of her ability to teach, write, AND mother.

I "can't wait" to read "What Can't Wait." Thanks, Sarah, for alerting us to such a great new find in the YA world.

Booksnyc said...

Thanks for highlighting this book - it is the first I have heard of it but it sounds very interesting. Fixing what is wrong in our education system to address why children are failing is a huge task and there is no silver bullet but anything that keep the discussion going helps. This books certainly does that!

Elizabeth said...

This sounds such a fascinating book with a most admirable author.
Education is such a very valuable thing I get miserable and frustrated when it is not appreciated ....but then don't we all!
Did you ever read "Once in a House on Fire" by Andrea Ashworth?
Set in England in the seventies, a wonderful story of overcoming a hideous childhood, but not trite at all.

cynthia newberry martin said...

I enjoyed reading the interview and the photos, but especially appreciated your opening remarks about What Can't Wait.

SG said...

Thank you for an excellent review of what promises to be an excellent book. I started my sabbatical last year by becoming a full time teacher at a low income, under resourced school (in India) for a year. Literally every day seemed to give me so much to think about. While the organization I was associated with put emphasis on the low achieving kids, the group that gave me the most to think about was the group of gifted children. their potential and my fear of it being wasted if they were not given the right opportunities and support. It would be enriching to read this book.